Note: this week’s episode deals a lot with some very serious topics that are also very relevant to the sport of swimming. The show makes a note at the very beginning of the episode for sensitive viewers, and we’ll do the same for this week’s recap.
Three-time U.S. Olympian Elizabeth Beisel is part of the cast of the 39th season of CBS’s reality TV show ‘Survivor.’ We’ll be recapping her game weekly… as long as she survives. ‘Survivor‘ is, of course, an edited, pared-down television program that condenses roughly three full days of on-island time into a one-hour program. There’s always more context to what we see, but our commentary is merely to have fun with what we’re shown, not to drag on any specific contestants.
It’s the merge episode, and we’re treated to a special two-hour edition of Survivor. So get ready for this recap to push the one million word barrier. Survivors ready?
Opening: Cat Escapes Bag
We join the Lairo tribe after a big blindside. Harvard MBA student Kellee just pulled off a major powerplay from the shadows, with the hopes of keeping her mastermind status secret for a few more days. But she immediately finds out why that’s difficult: some people cannot keep a secret. Noura is one of those people, and is also in Kellee’s tribe. Entrepreneur Noura does the worst job of lying possible, and then immediately drops Kellee’s name.
“You never play an underground game with Noura,” laughs Jamal, the former powerplayer who lost a major ally in the blindside.
Kellee doesn’t convince Jamal of her innocence, but does find a hidden immunity idol, which was re-hidden after two were played the night before.
The Merge: Swimmer Alliance???
In a Survivor tradition, the two tribes merge into one, transitioning the game from team-vs-team to an individual competition. In another Survivor tradition, a bunch of malnourished, dehydrated, exhausted survivors gorge themselves on food and booze in the merge feast. That’s usually a great way to get everyone to start spilling secrets, though we’ve discovered Noura needs no prompting to do that.
— Elizabeth Beisel (@ebeisel34) November 12, 2019
The strategy is going to be complex. The original purple tribe (Vokai) has a 7-6 advantage that would leave Beisel in the minority, and a very enticing merge target based on her physical strength and likability. But there are cracks in both original tribes, and it feels like, more often, players stick with their swapped tribe when a merge comes.
Beisel’s new tribe (they call it Vokai-2.0) is a 4-3 mix of players from the original tribes, but would have a built-in numbers advantage. Beisel gets to narrate the plan to keep those seven and bring in Kellee and lifeguard Janet, the other standout swimmer on the season. Swimmer alliance? Swimmer alliance. Team SwimSwam is fully on board for this plan.
Unfortunately, Kellee is not. She wants to knock out Beisel’s core four (Beisel, air force vet Missy, gym owner Aaron and factory worker Elaine) – Kellee pretty accurately assesses that this alliance is probably the most capable in the game, comprising a lot of strategic and physical ability.
Unwanted Touching – a Swimming-Relevant Case Study
There have been some big social themes coming up over and over in this season. One timely one for a swimming audience has been inappropriate touching. Talent agent Dan is the repeat offender – he was criticized early for being too handsy, and several players have raised similar issues, though their attitudes towards Dan range widely.
Missy and Kellee bond over struggling with how to respond. As they describe to each other their experiences with Dan, Survivor edits in video evidence of each scenario – that’s not something Survivor traditionally does, and sends a very clear message that the show producers want to leave zero ambiguity as to the exact situations and behaviors being referenced.
Kellee shares her feelings with Janet, an older player, and someone everyone trusts. Janet very aptly narrates the difficulty of dealing with these revelations. A lot of Dan’s behaviors, on the surface, are pretty innocent. Not very different, Janet notes, from how she interacts with some of her lifeguards. On the other hand, Janet says, she cannot ignore what these younger women are reporting to her, and she can’t write off the way Dan’s actions are making them feel.
“It’s a tricky thing to have 100% proof,” Janet says. “You’re never gonna get it.”
In a sport where perhaps the biggest ongoing story is how authorities have handled – or often mishandled – allegations of sexual abuse, this storyline hits really close to home. Plenty of SwimSwam readers have probably been in the shoes of Kellee (trying to decide how to respond to behavior ranging from borderline to completely inappropriate), Dan (being told that behaviors they thought were normal or even supportive are being perceived as inappropriate), or Janet (being informed of serious complaints against someone they’re close to and struggling with how to proceed). And this season is a case study in how this specific group is handling those roles – it’s not perfect, but at the very least, it’s a conversation-starter.
A little soapbox detour: swim coaches should watch that five-minute clip (from about 8:30 to 13:10 in the episode) to see how unwanted touching can affect their athletes. The vast majority of coaches aren’t willfully malicious – there’s at least some evidence that Dan is just oblivious to his behavior and would change if he were truly confronted with it. Many coaches are doing what their coaches did for them with hugs, handshakes, hands on shoulders. But just because those actions come from good intentions doesn’t mean they can’t negatively affect athletes. And the authority dynamic between a coach and a swimmer can make it very difficult for a swimmer to communicate when a behavior makes them uncomfortable. And even if you’re a great coach with the best intentions, normalizing an excess of touching only makes it easier for malicious coaches and predators to operate.
Young swimmers – watch that clip. There’s a powerful message there where Kellee realizes aloud that it takes five women sharing their experiences for any of them to realize that they are justified in calling it out. If you’re uncomfortable with the way someone is treating you, communicate that to someone you trust. Compare stories with someone else. Don’t convince yourself that the behavior is OK, or that you’re wrong for feeling uncomfortable about it. If you don’t communicate to anyone, you may never realize how many others are experiencing the same thing you are.
On the flip side, it doesn’t mean the other person is malicious, or a predator – they may be misguided or naive or even a good-hearted person oblivious to how their actions are perceived. And if you don’t communicate to them, they may never realize how they are affecting you. (This is arguably the mistake the players are currently making – Kellee has mentioned it to Dan before, but in vague terms about her not liking to be touched by anyone, and it’s not clear if any of the other women have raised the issue with Dan directly. This gets even trickier later in the episode, so stay tuned.)
Beisel gets put into a bit of a tough spot. She’s referenced Dan’s touchy-feely nature before, but later in the episode says it’s never made her uncomfortable, and that if it did, she would have told him to stop. From a game perspective, though, she’s in the minority and needs to be game to get on board with any plan, so she supports the other women’s stories about Dan’s behavior, and even implies to Janet that she, too, is very uncomfortable.
This all leads to a pretty unprecedented event: production halts the game to talk to the entire cast, making sure no player feels they are being mistreated and letting players know they can come to Survivor production if any issues become serious enough to require intervention in the game. This all happens off-screen, and we’re told all parties choose to continue the game, though the issue continues to have a huge impact.
That aside, Kellee is still not on board with booting Dan. She still wants to get rid of Missy, despite a two-hour heart-to-heart on the beach. Lauren reveals it to Missy, and the strategy continues to churn.
It’s a pretty brutal challenge, holding up a platform while hunched in an awkwardly low position. It actually reminds me a little bit of an isometric exercise my college team used to do in the weight room. Maybe Beisel’s done it before, too, because she does quite well, making the top three and finishing looking about as exhausted as she would after a 400 IM.
Beisel’s tribemate Aaron wins in a 25-minute battle with Jamal. Beisel’s core four makes up three of the top four finishers in the challenge, which is only going to make everyone even more afraid of that group, despite them being in the minority.
Plans & Counterplans
Missy didn’t win immunity, which means the original Vokai alliance can continue to target her. But there are layers on layers of plans:
- Plan A: original Vokai votes out Missy (leaving Beisel in a small minority)
- Plan B: Tommy & Lauren split from Vokai and vote out Kellee, whom they consider dangerous (Beisel would sneak into a majority here)
- Plan C: Jamal & Noura mend fences enough to put in a plan to flip on Dan (Beisel would survive here, but probably wouldn’t be fully into the majority alliance)
Oddly enough, Janet is fully on board with the Dan boot, owing in large part to her worries about Dan’s behavior. But Beisel doesn’t believe Janet is sincere, and doesn’t her her alliance on board for Plan C – they’re still set on Plan B, booting Kellee and evening things up between the two original tribes.
Yet another twist: Kellee finds her second immunity idol of the episode. That’s going to make things awfully murky.
Tribal Council #1
Despite a lot of talk about deception at tribal, Kellee chooses not to play either of her hidden immunity idols, not seeing any votes coming her way. That leads to a massive blindside in which Kellee leaves the game while burning two unused immunity idols. Kellee seemed like a very capable player, but she may have exposed her own strategic prowess a little too early, and the rest of the tribe felt way too threatened.
That vote also gives a clearer picture of the alliances, at least for this vote:
- 8 votes for Kellee: Tommy, Lauren, Dan, Missy, Elizabeth, Elaine, Aaron, Dean
- 5 votes for Dan: Noura, Karishma, Jamal, Janet,
That means Beisel’s new majority has an 8-4 advantage moving forward.
Aftermath: Not a Perfect Case Study
Janet feels betrayed, and rightfully so. She made a decision that probably went against her strategic best interests, voting for her alliance-mate Dan out of a moral concern that he was interacting inappropriately with the other women on the tribe. Then most of those women (most notably Beisel and Missy) turned around and went with a new plan, leaving Janet out of it and allying with the person they were accusing of pretty serious misconduct.
It’s a very rough swing. After the first half of the episode felt like a pretty strong cultural critique and even a positive case study in how to handle situations of unwanted touching, the competitive game element has kind of turned it into an ugly storyline in the second half. Missy and Beisel back away from their earlier accusations rapidly. To Dan’s face, they pin the accusations on Kellee, who is no longer there to confirm or deny. Dan seems genuinely sorry that his behavior caused anyone to feel uncomfortable. It starts to feel like if Kellee, Missy, and Beisel had approached Dan with their concerns, he may have immediately apologized and changed his behavior. Even if he didn’t, that was probably a necessary step they skipped in the process of dealing with this situation.
Beisel clarifies that she’s never felt uncomfortable with Dan’s behavior. In fairness to Beisel, the situation is very much an eye-of-the-beholder case: just because it doesn’t make Beisel uncomfortable doesn’t mean the behavior is OK, or that it didn’t affect other players, like Kellee. (Beisel does seem a little regretful of joking about Dan’s handsiness, which is too serious a topic to treat in a joking manner). Missy has the bigger flip – she and Kellee were the really serious drivers of the accusations against Dan, but to Dan’s face, she flips on those accusations and pins them on Kellee. It might be fair to say that both Beisel and Missy let their competitive drive to get further in the game cause them to treat a very serious topic too much as a gameplay opportunity.
It’s brutally uncomfortable when Janet confronts Beisel, who had spoken to her directly about Dan’s behavior, and Beisel sort of dances around the issue at hand. All-in-all, not a good look for really anyone here but Janet. But also some valuable examples of how not to treat issues like these. Maybe the comment section will have some feedback on what all parties did and didn’t do well. It’s also worth remembering that we’re only shown about 86 minutes of edited footage that comprises about six full days of on-island time – so as much as many of the parties came out looking badly, there’s also a lot of unknown context, and it’s not entirely fair for us to pick out clear good guys and bad guys based on the small snippets we’ve been shown.
Island of the Idols
Back to the game. Jamal finds a note that sends him to the Island of the Idols. The note is an instant disadvantage – it causes him to lose his vote at the next tribal council. But he also gets a blank parchment and a pencil, presented as an opportunity to sabotage somebody. Jamal writes rules of a fake advantage on the paper, then concocts a story about having to give the advantage to someone else. He publicly gives it to Dean, claiming it as an olive branch, but clearly as a way to put a target on Dean’s back.
It’s kind of counter-productive, though. Most of the tribe doesn’t trust Jamal’s story – after all, a bunch of them (Beisel included) know that Island of the Idols isn’t as simple as Jamal claims.
Meanwhile Janet finds an idol of her own at camp.
Immunity Challenge #2
The second immunity looks like a medieval torture device, hanging off the edge of a dock with more and more of your weight riding on an awkward arm position. The good news is that one man and one woman will win immunity. That gives Beisel a one-in-seven shot.
She comes down to the wire with tribemate Missy, but ultimately falls short. Aaron wins his second-straight immunity on the men’s side, and Beisel’s alliance holds both immunity necklaces and a numbers advantage.
Tribal Council #2
With an 8-4 advantage, the new superalliance decides to split the votes between Karishma and Jamal, out of fear that Jamal has an idol. He doesn’t – Janet does – but the plan is to boot Jamal if he doesn’t play an advantage.
Tribal talk centers a lot around the controversy of the prior episode. Jamal has some good, reasoned comments about how people shouldn’t write off allegations because they haven’t experienced or seen them, and about how our own gender or life experiences can help or harm our ability to accurately analyze these situations.
Dan maintains the innocence of his intentions, but also unequivocally apologizes that his actions made Kellee uncomfortable. Once again, we’re seeing how much direct communication could have helped this whole situation from the beginning. Whether or not Dan would have changed his behavior we don’t know (When Kellee confronted him early in the season, he seemed to step back some, but was still shown on camera touching her hair several times). But without the concerns being directly addressed to him in a really clear way, he didn’t have a chance to change.
There isn’t a hard and fast moral presented, but the discussion is eye-opening, and hopefully brings about some good discussion among viewers (and maybe SwimSwam commenters).
While there’s a lot more to unpack here, the tribe has to eventually move to the vote. Janet plays her idol, not wanting to go home without playing it like Kellee did. It doesn’t matter, as the vote split between Jamal and Karishma goes forward, and Jamal goes home.
Next Time on Survivor
Next week is a double-boot – meaning two players are going home. The main alliance appears to be targeting Karishma and Janet (two of the three remaining in the minority alliance), but there’s a tease of a split in the main alliance, perhaps between the original purple tribe’s Tommy and the original orange tribe’s Missy.