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Survivor 44: It's Time to Talk About Fake Immunity Idols

The show is encouraging more and more fake idols, but where does that road lead?
  • Matt Blankinship and Claire Rafson on Survivor (photo: Robert Voets/CBS)
    Matt Blankinship and Claire Rafson on Survivor (photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Survivor Season 44, Episode 3, “Sneaky Little Snake.”

    Falsehoods, fraud, and fakery have always been a part of the game of Survivor. Ever since Richard Hatch misrepresented his intentions and created a secret voting alliance in that first season, Survivor has been a game about pulling the wool over your opponents' eyes. In that sense, the increasing presence of fake immunity idols on the show is just a natural evolution of the game. On tonight's episode, we see two of them get put into play, planting the seeds for what may end up being a big moment down the road. But are fake immunity idols good for the game?

    After finding the key to the birdcage and claiming the Soka tribe's hidden immunity idol last week, Danny is back for more mischief. As you'll recall, the birdcage satchel contained one beaded immunity idol and one silver coin that, per the instructions, was utterly powerless. This seemed at the time to be Survivor’s production team tacitly encouraging the creation of a fake immunity idol, to inject more chaos into the game. You didn't have to tell Danny twice. This week, we see Danny wrap that silver coin inside the "congratulations, you found an immunity idol!" parchment, put it back in the birdcage, and re-hide the key for an unsuspecting tribemate to find. That tribemate ends up being Matt, who now has (per an earlier twist) no votes for his first two tribal councils and the false security of a fake immunity idol, plus he's a visible target because of his increasingly visible flirtation with Frannie. Matt's in a real mess.

    Meanwhile, over on Ratu, that immunity idol was found and played by Brandon in the season premiere. But as any Survivor fan — which all the contestants are these days — knows, once an idol is played, it gets re-hidden on the island. This week, the editors play a trick on us, making us think Jaime finds the re-hidden idol near the water well, only to quickly reveal that the idol Jaime finds is fake. Matthew found the real idol (off-camera) earlier, then created a fake idol from beads and trinkets around camp and hid it near the water well for someone else to find.

    Matthew's rationale is interesting to ponder. "I like being sneaky," Matthew says. "I don't get to do that in my day-to-day life, so why not explore every option out here?" This feels like a very modern Survivor statement. When people used to talk about "the experience" of Survivor, it used to be about testing your limits and enduring the elements and living on a beach in the middle of nowhere. And while that is still part of the appeal — indeed, Matthew separated his shoulder in the season premiere trying to climb a rock in a very old-school sense of the Survivor experience — the "experience" now also means partaking of every item on the Survivor strategic buffet.

    Modern Survivor players show up with a kind of mental checklist, and they want to do it all: find immunity idols, play immunity idols, pull off a blindside. For Matthew, creating a fake immunity idol is another item on the checklist. By his own admission, he doesn't even have designs on snaking Jaime. She's his ally, at least for the moment. They're the Plant Lady and Plant Daddy! But now, if he wants to turn on Jaime and put a target on her, he's set in motion the means to do that. It's somewhere on the map between advanced Survivor strategy and advanced Survivor theater.

    So two fake idols are now in play. And the episode doesn't even address the fact that last week, when Carolyn acquired the Tika idol, she seemed to suggest that she thought the threaded beads were the useless part and the silver coin was the actual idol, which leaves open the possibility that Carolyn might actually try to make a fake idol out of the real idol and hide that somewhere in Tika camp, which could be the wildest thing to ever happen on Survivor, should it happen. But two fake idols for now, which have been a thing on Survivor for a long time. Sometimes players make them for themselves to try to bluff the rest of the tribe into not voting for them. Increasingly, they've been used to try to fake other players out. This has a strategic component. Give someone a fake idol and they'll stop looking for the real one. They'll also think they're safe when they're not.

    From a viewer's perspective, they've mostly been good TV. On Survivor: Gabon, Bob made a fake idol for Randy to find, and when Randy tried in vain to play it, Sugar laughed at him, and we all had a good time with that because Randy was awful and we all hated him. On Survivor: Micronesia, Ozzy drew a face on a stick in a rather laughable attempt to create a fake idol, and even more laughably, Jason believed him, and tried to pass the "idol" off to Eliza as legit, leading to the now-iconic "it's a f*cking stick!" moment. Angelina made a fake idol for Allison to find on Survivor: David vs. Goliath, which was fun mostly because Angelina was at that point behaving like a deeply entertaining psychopath.

    Good TV is good TV, but is it genuinely satisfying to watch someone get fooled by a fake immunity idol? Especially now that Survivor’s production team is leaning into it and encouraging the players to create fake idols, going so far as to give them the materials that would make their fake idols indistinguishable from real ones? It's not all that satisfying to watch Matt and Jaime get fooled in this case. They're not being taken down by their own hubris or stupidity. They found idols that look like real idols because production helped make them look like real idols. Why would they doubt their veracity? This all seems like we're headed down a path where nobody can trust that the idol they found is legit, at which point all sense of objective reality is lost, and we're playing Survivor: Theoretical Uncertainty. It's not enough that the show is overloaded with real advantages, we're now overloaded with imaginary advantages too?

    Anyway, none of this business with fake idols ends up mattering in this week's Tribal Council, which boils down to a very traditional Survivor dilemma: tribe strength versus strategic alliances. Claire sits out her third consecutive immunity challenge and appears supremely unbothered about it, but when Soka loses the challenge, suddenly Claire's admitted weakness in challenges makes her the most obvious target. Claire does her best to rally an alliance to her aid. She and Frannie seem very eager to work together and want to target Josh, who doesn't seem to have forged strategic bonds with anyone besides Danny and Matt. The swing vote ends up being Heidi, whom Claire seems to view as one of her top allies, even as Heidi interviews that Danny is her No. 1. The result at Tribal is a lot less suspenseful than the show would like us to believe. Heidi's support for Claire was half-hearted at best, and Matt didn't have a vote. Frannie likely saw the writing on the wall and went with the majority. Goodbye to Claire, our Sit-Out Queen. She seemed cool.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Player of the Week: It's gotta be Danny. He successfully plants the idol for Matt, and he emerges on the winning side of the vote at Tribal, keeping Josh, and having Heidi reveal him as her top ally. Things are looking good.

    Honorable Mention(s): Here's to all of Tika tribe, the immunity challenge underdogs who manage to stay out of the crosshairs of tribal council.

    Sketchy Strategy: Matt initially lies when Danny busts him for finding the key to the "idol." Come clean when you're busted, it makes you look way less sneaky!

    Alliance Report: As alliance names go, "Plant Lady and Plant Daddy" for Jaime and Matthew is the right kind of cringey.

    Advantage Report:

    • Danny has an immunity idol.
    • Carolyn has a beaded immunity idol (plus a non-powered silver coin, though she seems to think it's the other way around).
    • Matthew found the re-hidden immunity idol on Ratu.
    • Both Matt and Jaime have fake idols that they think are real.
    • Lauren has an extra vote to use whenever she wants.
    • Sarah earned an Inheritance Advantage, which, when played in the voting booth, will allow her to secretly scarf up all the advantages played at that particular Tribal Council.
    • Matt didn't have a vote at this Tribal Council, and can't vote at his next TC either.

    Coming Next Week: Jeff Probst promises something that could change the game, and a boat arrives at camp!

    Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM ET on CBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor