Dan becomes the focus of accusations both real and exaggerated for strategic effect
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Here we go again. I wrote last week that watching this season of Survivor: Island of the Idols felt a bit like a Sarah Lawrence College freshman seminar on Differences in Traditional Marriage Practices, Unfortunate African-American Stereotypes, and Dangerous Gender Assumptions. If that was the case, then I guess with this latest episode we are now going for a post-graduate degree.

Wow. There are so many angles on what transpired here on Survivor. Angles that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with the game, yet in the most fascinating — and, perhaps, disturbing — way, then became completely intertwined into gameplay. My head is still spinning from it all. I think the easiest way to break this down is to come at it from the different perspectives of the different parties involved. Once again, we are all at the mercy of what we saw on TV, and we have to recognize that the vast majority of what happened out there on the island we did NOT see. With that said, let’s dive in and start with Kellee.

“As much as I feel disrespected by him and disgusted by him, I’m not going to make a game decision based on those feelings.”

Kellee is a super impressive woman. We’ve seen her strategic mind at work throughout the season. And while I wrote at length (too much length, no doubt) about how her comments last week about the talk of women’s alliances were a bit too narrowly-focused, I appreciated the fact that she felt the strength and confidence to bring it up. She also felt the strength to tell Dan very early on in the season that she was very uncomfortable with how much he was touching her.

Dan and Kellee were then separated at the tribe swap and just came back together now at the merge, and the old problems came back as well, especially after Missy started complaining to Kellee about her own issues. (We’ll get into Missy and Elizabeth in a minute.) After hearing from Missy that Dan had been touching five different women inappropriately, Kellee broke down in an interview, which led to the producer intervention. (We’ll get into that as well.).

But here’s what’s so impressive about Kellee. As disturbed and troubled as she was by Dan’s behavior, she was not going to let that dictate her course of action in the game. So many times moves are made for personal reasons that then end up backfiring, and Kellee was determined to not let that happen to her. Now, you need to feel safe in the game, and can’t keep someone around if you feel it compromises that safety, which makes this situation unique, but that’s where the production intervention comes in.

Kellee was still focused on getting Missy out because she felt Missy was the biggest threat in the game. Her ability to stay laser-focused on that in the midst of everything else — and at the same time Missy was using Dan’s handsy approach as a weapon in the game — was noteworthy. Only when Jamal wanted to move the target over to Dan did Kelle change gears.

Because she is a gamer who respects game, Kellee did not seem to take the fact that she was blindsided personally. She was actually shockingly upbeat for someone that just experienced a heavy dose of personal drama only to be followed by getting blindsided with TWO idols in her pocket. She handled it extremely well. Viewers, most likely, did not. This was difficult to see. Whether it was for her gameplay, her strength in the midst of adversity, or just the awesome way she once hid an idol in her hair, Kellee became an immediate fan favorite, and watching her go out this way just seemed cruel. But not as cruel as what came next.

For Kellee to have to sit there silent as a jury member at the second Tribal Council and not have a voice in that conversation between Dan, Janet, and others must have been absolute torture. Her voice was so critical to everything that transpired on both a personal and game front, so for it to be silenced seemed almost unjust in a way. I felt for her. Yet I was at least buoyed by the knowledge that it was her voice that enabled conversations all across the country to happen because of her decision to speak up in the first place.

“If I can play up that card in whatever way possible, I’ll do it.”

So this is where things get complicated. I think we can all agree that when someone is inappropriately touching someone else, and then is asked to stop and doesn’t, that is a problem. That’s pretty clear. In that sense, the Kellee and Dan stuff is not all that intricate. But what about when people decide to use or accuse as a game move?

That is a question we were all forced to confront when Missy and Elizabeth hatched a plan to save themselves by making Dan a target in terms of fabricating their reactions to Dan’s actions. Missy tried to bond with Kellee by highlighting examples of Dan being too touchy and then clearly instructed Elizabeth to use that as a game move when talking to Janet: “You tell her how uncomfortable you are. Like, you have a very open mom-daughter moment about how uncomfortable you are. Right now, that’s our only play.”

Elizabeth then told us, “My job is to do whatever it takes to get on the right side of the numbers. The original Vokai are not the biggest fans of Dan, so if I can play up that card in whatever way possible, I’ll do it.” Now, if Elizabeth had truly felt unsafe or uncomfortable around Dan, her using this as a weapon to get him out would be totally acceptable. However, where things get super tricky is the fact that Elizabeth did not feel that way. As she told us later in no uncertain terms, “Honestly, I’ve felt safe this entire time and if I had felt uncomfortable I would have said, ‘Please stop.’’’

Oh boy. Longtime readers of this column know that I am hardcore gamebot and have always subscribed to the theory that anything that is within the rules is thereby by definition within the rules. Any tool at your disposal to get you further in the game and increase your chances of winning is something you would be a fool to not use. The entire game is about deceit, so what makes one lie stronger or worse than the other?

I very rarely have any moral qualms about controversial moves. I had no issue when Jonny Fairplay killed his own grandmother on national television. My only problem with Dawn voting out Brenda after Brenda found her false teeth and then tried to take Dawn on the loved ones reward was not on the belief that Dawn owed Brenda a single thing for her kindness, but rather that the optics would not play well with the jury at the end. The point is, I think you can get away with pretty much anything in the game, as long as it is because you are playing the game.

However, to lie and say someone touching you made you uncomfortable, and thereby risk ruining someone’s reputation outside of the game on national television? That is certainly dicey. This is not a defense of Dan, mind you. We’ll talk more about him a little later. But it’s about the lengths you will go to move the target off of yourself and onto someone else. Missy and Elizabeth intentionally threw inappropriate touching accusations at Dan as a game move — accusations that ultimately convinced a woman who liked Dan to vote against him as a sign of support for the women she thought had been violated.

Part of me wants to completely bury them for that. We all know that there is a history in our culture of female victims not being believed when they level accusations against men for putting their hands where their hands should not be. After going through the trauma of the situation itself, victims then often have to go through a whole other traumatic experience of proving their experiences actually happened. So for Missy and Elizabeth to at best exaggerate and at worst completely fabricate their feelings on the matter and use this falsehood as a weapon is super problematic.

I’m not going to defend it. But I’m also not going to sit here and pretend the situation is that black and white. Because, once again, we have the intersection of personal and professional. We can’t sit here and pretend this is all happening in a vacuum. The first rule of Survivor is to exploit any and every situation to your advantage. If there is a chance you can use something against someone to make them the target instead of you, you do it. That’s the mind-frame of the modern-day Survivor player. And you have to consider that mind-frame when looking at what Missy and Elizabeth did.

Again, I’m not defending it. But hopefully, I am at least giving it some context. Because it is not a normal situation. This is not real life. That was illustrated perfectly by the fact that even though Kellee was emotionally distraught by Dan’s behavior, she still wanted to vote out the person she had just bonded with who also talked about being a victim of his inappropriate touching. Think about that for a second.

On the surface, that would seem terrible of Kellee. But it wasn’t, because she was also playing the game. So were Missy and Elizabeth, and in their minds what they were doing was making a game move, damn the collateral damage. It’s probably the second most explosive intersection of game and personal we have ever seen on the show, the first being when Jeff Varner outed Zeke as transgender and claimed that the fact that he was hiding something personal like that made him untrustworthy in the game. What Varner did was dangerous, and what Missy and Elizabeth did was dangerous as well, falsely claiming something against someone. But while Dan was the target of their bogus claims, the collateral damage ended up striking someone else instead.

“I feel anything that has to do with sexual uncomfortability has nowhere, no place in a joking environment, in a game environment, in anything. It’s its own entity. It’s a very, very powerful thing. Lives can be destroyed.”

Dammit. Janet. That is not my attempt to quote track 2 from The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack, but rather my feelings after seeing what happened to the 59-year-old lifeguard in the aftermath of everything that went down. Plain and simple, it just sucks what happened to Janet here.

Janet liked Dan. She enjoyed his company and the two got along well. But she was troubled when Kellee expressed issues with the way Dan kept pawing at her. She seemed to think Dan’s actions were not made with any ill intent but also recognized how uncomfortable they made Kellee feel. “It’s a tricky thing to have 100 percent truth,” Janet told us, “because you’re never going to get it.”

But once Elizabeth shared stories of feeling unsafe and uncomfortable with Janet — who also heard similar stories from Missy and Lauren — she felt she could no longer ignore them. So when Jamal proposed voting out Dan, Janet agreed. She didn’t do it because she disliked him. (On the contrary, she said she was fond of Dan.) She didn’t do it for strategic reasons. (Dan was trying to align with her.) She did it because “I just have a personal, emotional need to have these girls feel okay.”

That’s what makes what happened next so heartbreaking. Elizabeth was lying to Janet’s face, and the “girls” Janet was worrying so deeply about (Elizabeth, Missy, Lauren) all voted WITH their alleged abuser and AGAINST the only true victim in Kellee. Janet was shellshocked. “I felt very betrayed on a moral level,” noting that she was trying to make “a vote about standing up for what is right.” Not only did the other women not play along with that vote, they actively used Janet’s moral code against her and manipulated her motherly instincts for their own strategic gain.

Brilliant play? Unconscionable behavior? Or a little bit of both? That ultimately is the question we all have to wrestle with now. And the thing about it is, because this all took place in the space of a social and strategic game, there is no “right” answer. Everyone draws their own line. Everyone has their own code. Some people refuse to swear on their family. Others have no issues doing so. Some people promise to never break an alliance in the game. Others do so on a daily basis.

Janet is a nice woman who was trying to do a nice thing for others and, like many before her, she got burned for it. Sometimes, because I am a terrible person, that is fun to watch. This wasn’t fun. I felt awful for her. I felt awful watching her wrestle with what had happened. I felt awful watching Elizabeth essentially tell her to her face that she had lied. I felt awful watching Janet talk about quitting the game right then and there at Tribal Council. “The girls let it fly that Dan was a problem and I’m upset about that because he wasn’t my initial vote and I changed it to support them so they could feel better at camp,” she said. “That’s a damn shame.”

At the second Tribal Council, Aaron tried to minimize what had taken place and said, “This was a Survivor play that went wrong for Janet.” He talked about how she was playing the victim role and “trying to spin it into something that could potentially affect the life of Dan.” Well, first off, all, false accusations can potentially affect someone’s life in a pretty drastic way. I also never got the sense this was just about Janet being on the wrong side of the votes. She took herself out of the game to do what she thought was right based on the information she was given. And, in terms of the game, that was her big mistake. And the fact that it was such a mistake is what was so hard to watch. Said Janet: “I got played and then they crossed a line playing it.” We can all agree on the first part of that quote. The second part is what is likely to be argued for a long time on both sides. Because everybody in this game has a different line.

“That vote proved they wanted to keep playing that game with me.”

But did they? Did they want to keep playing the game with you? On one hand, yes, Elizabeth and Lauren told us straight-up that Dan did not make them feel uncomfortable at all in terms of his touching, so no, that did not seem to be an issue for anyone other than Kellee. However, at the same time, at one point or another pretty much every single person in the game wanted Dan to be the first one out after the merge. So that’s not great.

Also not great: Dan repeatedly being so touchy after being talked to about it by Kellee at the start of the game. Even after that conversation, we saw him kiss her hair when she came back from Island of the Idols, and then we twice saw him playing with her hair after that. I don’t want to overlook the fact that it can be hard to change what someone can consider innocent lifelong habits with a snap of the fingers. I also want to acknowledge that pretty much everyone on Survivor spoons at night to keep warm and there is a level of personal closeness that happens on the island that does not exist back home. All that said, we did see a pattern.

And while it sucks for Dan to have been on the receiving end of bogus claims about making women like Elizabeth, Missy, and Lauren feel uncomfortable, at least they told the truth to the camera that they did not have issues in that regard and that it was only a game move. They weren’t making that stuff up for no reason and did acknowledge the truth on multiple occasions. So while his reputation may have temporarily suffered out on the island for that, the millions watching at home were not fed a false narrative.

What really troubled me about Dan was his behavior at Tribal Council. Did he really need to make a triumphant arm pumping motion when Kellee was voted out? Did he then need to vindictively say, “Yep, put that torch down” when her fire and life in the game was extinguished? This was a woman who experienced a lot of emotional vulnerability at his (literal) hands. I get that by the time Tribal came around she was gunning for him and he was gunning for her and he came out on top, but dude, do you need to take such glee and satisfaction in her defeat? If you had a long spindly mustache, would you have also been twirling that? It was a bad look. The next Tribal Council was even worse.

Whether claiming he could not be in the wrong because “most of my clients are women, most of the people I work with are women” — a sad variation on Aaron’s already sad claim that he was attuned to women’s issues because he had two sisters and a mother (groan) — or becoming visibly frustrated because Jeff Probst kept asking him about it, Dan did not come off as sympathetic in the least. I understand he was in a suuuuuper weird and precarious place with one person legitimately claiming to feel uncomfortable with his touching, several others pretending to be uncomfortable, and then a former ally who stood by him until she didn’t due to false information, and now doesn’t know what to think, but still — maintain your composure!

He only finally really acknowledged the Kellee situation after essentially being forced to. Again, not a good look. How difficult would it have been to apologize right off the bat for anything physical that may have made anyone uncomfortable? How hard would it have been to look over at the jury and say, “Kellee, you spoke to me a few days into the game that I was invading your personal space. I really appreciate you being so upfront and telling me that, and I deeply apologize for any lapses in which I may have overstepped boundaries. The fault is mine. I am so sorry if I ever made you feel unsafe. I’d love to talk to you more about this outside of the game and offer my apologies once again in a more private setting, and I hope you’ll give me that chance to do so.”

There. That’s it. That’s all he had to do. And the thing about that is, it also would have been a great game move! Everyone would have respected it, whether they felt he was at fault or not. It’s a no-lose play. But instead, Dan seemed to dig in his heels. Again, I want to acknowledge there were some pretty unique circumstances he was dealing with that extended well beyond just the stuff with Kellee. But I think we can all agree he could have handled this a hell of a lot better.

“You know, if there are issues to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that stops. ‘Cause that’s…I don’t want anyone feeling uncomfortable.”

Production on Survivor likes to remain invisible. Think of them like referees in a football game: The less you realize they are there, the better. (The production that goes on behind the scenes on this show is pretty remarkable, and I gave a pretty good peek into it right here if you’re curious to know more.) The only times we ever really see any sort of fourth-wall breaking and production is when there is a medical emergency. We’ve had a few instances during challenges where people blacked out, and all of sudden you see doctors and cameramen and boom mic operators rushing around like Survivor chickens with their heads cut off. (Nobody tell Sia!) That’s what made what happened here so unique.

It started with some behind-the-scenes footage in which we saw examples of Dan playing with Kellee’s hair to support what she was saying. Because the show did not have “clean” shots of this, they had to use footage with camera crews in the frame. The camera crews are always there (obviously) but you never see them, so this was somewhat jarring to watch. It then continued during Kellee’s confessional interview when the player got super emotional talking about the fact that Dan had been doing this to five different women (or so she was led to believe).

In what may be a Survivor first, we then heard the voice on the other end of the interview as a producer told Kellee to let him know if she wanted the show to intervene. And intervene they did. At the end of the segment, a title card appeared which read: “The following morning the producers met with all the players, both as a group and individually. They were cautioned about personal boundaries and reminded that producers are available to them at all times. Based on the outcome of those discussions, the game continued. In addition, producers met privately with Dan, at which time he was issued a warning for his behavior. Producers continue to monitor the situation.”

Of course, that is pretty general, and questions remain as to what those meetings entailed beyond reminders about recognizing personal space and to come to producers if any more issues arose. For a show that likes to keep randomly re-dividing tribes so nobody gets too close, and prides itself on introducing lots of goofy elements like a note hanging from a tree saying “You Found Me,” Survivor tries not to interfere too much in terms of one-on-one social dynamics. Nor should they.

The entire premise of the show is based on what happens when you put a bunch of strangers together on an island and allow them to build their own society. The less interference in terms of the personal dynamics of that society, the better. But, clearly, certain boundaries come into play, and it certainly appeared to warrant production taking a time-out from the game to remind everyone not only of those boundaries, but also the steps to take if they feel those boundaries are not being recognized.

At first, they stepped back and allowed Kellee to directly handle the situation with Dan at the start of the season. When the behavior that concerned her continued once they were back together after the merge, production stepped in and issued a warning. How Dan received that warning — and if that is what led to his celebration at Kellee’s ouster — remains unclear.

The ultimate judgment on how production handled the situation will come from the players themselves. If they felt safe and protected, that’s all that really matters. Of course, I will be asking Kellee and others about it. I do know that Zeke had the utmost thanks and respect for the way Jeff Probst and the Survivor crew handled everything when he was publicly outed by Varner. We’ll see if the season 39 cast feels the same way, but having spent 18 different seasons myself on location seeing how this crew operates, nothing leads me to believe they won’t.

“Dan, you’re right. I will never let it go. We’ll be here until day 39.”

To quote Bill Paxton in Aliens, “Game over, man.” That was classic, vintage, old school Jeff Probst. And that’s what happened after Dan got annoyed by Jeff questioning him about the one topic that was clearly at the center of everything! “Since it won’t be let go, clearly, Jeff…” Dan moaned, which led to the verbal beatdown by the Hostmaster General.

Let it go? First of all, have you met Jeffrey Probst? It’s the man’s job to poke, prod, and pry. That’s what he’s there to do! And he’ll keep doing it until he gets what he’s looking for. I’ve attended a bunch of Tribal Councils. Some are petty quick and can be done in about 40 minutes. I’ve been to others that all told lasted more than two hours. If Jeff feels one contestant is not giving him what he needs, he’ll ask that person again. And if he still hasn’t gotten an answer that is either entertaining or insightful, he’ll ask that person again. And then again. And if that person isn’t up to the task, then Probst will ask the same thing to another person. And then another person. And if nobody is giving him anything useful, he’ll curse everyone out. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard it. And it’s awesome.

And that’s why Probst is so good at what he does. There’s no IFB in his ear with a producer feeding him direction or questions. There’s no chance to go back and reshoot stuff later. Nobody is able to get meat off the bone like Probst. And Dan should know that. He’s been to a few Tribals by now. He knows that a line of questioning will be exhausted to its fullest extent so they have enough material and conversation to pull from for the show. When Steven Spielberg shoots a scene, he doesn’t simply do one take. He may do twenty and then pick the best one to use in the movie. Similarly, Probst may over-ask a question so he gets different insights and answers and can pull the best response for the show. That’s the way it works. Dan should know that by now, and to watch Probst drop the hammer with that not-so-gentle reminder was delicious.

Okay, let’s wrap this up. Usually, I am not a fan of when two episodes of Survivor are wedged back to back. I feel there is always enough to digest and discuss from one episode that I don’t need a second shot immediately after. Plus, I’d rather have more weeks of the show, meaning every time they air two episodes back to back, that is one less week the show is on the air. That bums me out. All that said, it’s amazing how well these two episodes worked in conjunction together, with all the action happening in hour one followed by the fallout/reaction in hour two.

The only downside is that there was so much other stuff — two great challenges, other merge dynamics, a truly absurd lesson from Boston Rob and Sandra that basically contradicted every single lesson they have been giving all season about being bold and taking risks, and the departure of Jamal — that really feel more like afterthoughts with everything else that went down. Jamal was a fascinating cat who, like Kellee, was very attuned to social issues, but was equally attuned and focused on winning this game. He was clearly bummed about being taken out. However, like Kellee, I’m confident we have not seen the last of him on this show, and I’m not just talking about the jury.

So that’s it! Like I said last week, I don’t need every episode of every season of Survivor to turn into a cultural referendum, but that is what has been happening on the island this season and it has been intriguing to watch the conversations that have been happening here at home take place out there in Fiji, yet with another volatile game element thrown in to complicate matters even more. And these episodes were nothing if not complicated.

Okay, we’re not done yet. We’ve got an exclusive deleted scene from the episode for you above. Plus, we went through it all with Jeff Probst and you can read his reaction to everything that went down in this week’s Q&A. We’ll also have our exit interviews with Kellee and Jamal up soon, and for more Survivor scoop, you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

But now it’s your turn. How do you weigh in when it comes to what Missy and Elizabeth did? What do you make of Dan’s reaction to everything? And where do you stand when it comes to production’s role in incidents like this? Hit the message boards to weigh in. Opinions are welcome as long as they are delivered in a constructive and considerate manner. Let’s all be adults here, okay? And, with that, I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy.

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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