Survivor Island of the Idols: Why Dan Spilo should have been removed earlier (update)

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

With a victim crying in private, several women corroborating stories, and a producer said it’s not okay, Dan Spilo should have left Survivor: Island of the Idols.

Content warning: This post will discuss sexual harassment and sexual assault both inside Survivor: Island of the Idols and outside the show.

UPDATE: Dan Spilo has been removed from Survivor: Island of the Idols on Day 36 after an alleged incident with a female member of production. The piece below discusses why he should have been removed at the merge.

ORIGINAL: There are few episodes of Survivor I won’t ever watch again. When you have a reality competition program where people from all walks of life are thrown into extreme circumstances and are asked to provide compelling television for at least 39 days 39 times over now, unfortunate circumstances will occur, and it will not be as pretty as the most triumphant moments.

Even when writing our site’s recap of Survivor: Island of the Idols episode 8 last night, I had to quit typing and sit in disgust, watching what was unfolding. Dan Spilo was shown multiple times in candid shots inappropriately touching women, with both Kellee and Missy bonding war stories of how he’s touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.

What followed was two hours of production stepping into the fray to discuss the events and try to squash the issue only for two women to embellish their level of discomfort for strategic purposes, one woman gaslit and thrown under the bus for supporting young women based on their shared discomfort, the primary victim who started this movement voted out, a male ally following out the door, and the accused relishing in the primary victim being voted out while also wanting to drop the subject at Tribal Council.

I’ve had to watch these two hours three times over the past two days to get a full comprehension of what happened, but a statement has been ringing true since the first time that warning card flashed on the screen: Dan Spilo should have been removed from Survivor: Island of the Idols. For those who have shared discomfort’s sake, for his sake, and for the show’s sake.

Dan’s history of transgressions

This isn’t a sudden implication; there’s been a pattern of unwanted touching by Dan towards women as early as the premiere. His literal character introduction saw him laying his head on Kellee’s legs, giving backrubs to the women, and having people like Molly confiding in Janet on Day 2 about how it makes her feel uncomfortable.

What kills me, personally, is that Kellee tells Dan in a way that has to give him the benefit of the doubt not only because he’s a stranger but because this is a game for a million dollars. She even provides a quote that would prove damning later on, saying, “Dan’s lack of spatial awareness, I think, is going to hurt him in the game.” Little could we know it would actually hurt her game and benefit his.

The problem is that Dan was given direct confirmation that he’s more touchy than others are comfortable with, yet he continues to act in such a way. In episode 2, he’s holding Kellee’s head when she comes back from the Island of the Idols and kisses her crown. It wouldn’t be addressed on the show until Night 17, as he laid his arm across Missy’s leg in an unnatural way as if to grab onto her body in a possessive way.

Those moments of crossing the line must have happened enough times for Dan to get a reputation, as the next day, Missy, Lauren, Elizabeth, and Tommy were bonding over how much Dan was touching those women where Lauren could fill Elizabeth in onto who the subject was simply by grabbing her breasts from behind. At that time, Lauren, Tommy, and Dan were on the bottom of Vokai 2.0, and Lauren noted Dan was making people feel uncomfortable as a reason to target him.

It’s all backdrop for the merge when we learn that Kellee has asked Dan repeatedly not to touch her, but he repeatedly violates her space by touching her face and, later, searching through her hair without warning. Missy even says, “For my mental health, he can go,” reflecting on the Vokai shelter moment and him touching her toes at the merge feast. She calls the contact inappropriate and remarks that she is not an object.

The moment Dan Spilo should have been removed

Though we see both the commentary and the reflections happen in real-time, television doesn’t operate that way. In reality, after that conversation between Kellee and Missy was filmed, Kellee spoke with a producer in a confessional, recounting that the fact that five women (herself, Missy, Lauren, Elizabeth, and Molly) experienced such discomfort demonstrated a pattern that proved to her that it wasn’t in her mind, but a reality shared amongst women in the game.

With a producer speaking off-camera to Kellee saying that she can come to him if things “need to happen” to make people feel uncomfortable “because that’s not okay” what she’s experiencing, here lies the moment that Dan Spilo should have been taken out of Survivor: Island of the Idols; Kellee replied, “I think it will stop because Janet is here.

As broken down by Jeff Probst in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, that producer told the Survivor host who immediately contacted CBS before enacting their plan to talk to the players the next morning as a group to speak about personal boundaries before separately giving Dan a warning for his behavior.

The problem with this route is before it was enacted, several players used the discomfort of this serious issue of personal space violation as a means of gameplay in front of producers and cameramen and women. Kellee had specifically named Janet as the protector of women’s boundaries in this issue while Missy told Elizabeth to open up to Janet in a mother-daughter way to target Dan because “right now, that’s our only play.

I can’t speak to when Elizabeth offered her confessional, as they are often filmed days later, let alone the same day. However, when Elizabeth says that “her job is to do whatever it takes to get on the right side of the numbers” and to play up her discomfort with Dan as a “card to play” while later admitting she has “felt safe this entire time,” Elizabeth and Missy had mixed a real-life issue with Survivor gameplay.

If production can intervene without asking Kellee for permission on behalf of the security of the players, it cannot be overstated enough that production should have intervened immediately and taken Dan Spilo out of Survivor: Island of the Idols. 

I admit it’s a tough call to make, but when the show has evacuated players who have put others’ safety at risk. Gordon Holmes reminds us that like with Brandon Hantz in Caramoan, it doesn’t require punches to be thrown or landed for players’ safety to be taken seriously.

The fallout of inaction

Because the plan was in motion to talk to the players the next morning and because Kellee wanted to deal with it on a gameplay level, it’s what allowed the muddling of perceptions. Lauren and Tommy didn’t want to flip on Kellee, but because she was talking with Missy, the supposed target of the Vokai majority, for two hours about something they didn’t know was serious, it launched a series of unintended consequences.

Kellee brought Janet into the fold because Janet felt like it was the moral right to do. Lauren warned Missy that the plan was to vote for her and not to trust Kellee, allowing Lauren and Tommy to use that conversation that made Missy feel “comfortable” into Kellee’s strategy. Lauren didn’t, and couldn’t, know the nature of the serious discussions had between Kellee and Missy, but because it was about Dan, Lauren just so happened to stumble into getting Missy to think that their heart to heart meant nothing.

Ironically, the first moments of Dan legitimately being the voting target didn’t come until Jamal and Noura hatched it on their own, with Jamal telling Janet who conceded into potentially blowing up her game to get out a player that made women feel uncomfortable. Crucially, because Lauren let Missy know she was a target when Janet comes to Elizabeth to say the target is Dan because she’s protecting uncomfortable women, Elizabeth has the perception Janet is lying about targeting Dan and turning that discomfort into gameplay.

Once Kellee is voted out, and Janet directly tells Dan that women have come to her saying Dan has made them feel uncomfortable, because the majority voted out the minority, it only made sense for Elizabeth and Missy primarily (along with Aaron, Elaine, and Lauren to a lesser extent) to throw Janet and Kellee under the bus.

In their eyes, because Kellee was planning on voting out Missy anyways until Jamal turned Janet onto the Dan vote-out plan, Janet was spinning a strategy to turn the safety of the women into gameplay. They even lied about what they told Dan they revealed to Janet to save their own asses for gameplay reasons because, as you may recall, Survivor is a game with a million-dollar prize, and everyone left has at least a 1/12 shot of winning.

By keeping Dan in the game, Survivor prioritized the sanctity of the game via production interference over the unintended consequences of mixing a moral concern with a gameplay concern. Unfortunately, by leaving in a person who has violated several women’s trust (in their experiences), they have allowed the idea of keeping such a person in the game as a reason to influence peoples’ decisions, forcing players to balance morals and ethics with the want for money and glory playing a game.

Janet paid the consequences by standing up for what’s right within the confines of the game while being ostracized. She should have never had to balance whether she could sleep at night with the future in Survivor.

Giving those who cross the lines of morality a spotlight

As mentioned earlier, the person who brought up accusations of misconduct (who had those accusations verified through video evidence) towards Dan was voted out while Dan and those on his team had the opportunity to twist their actions into vilifying the champion of justice.

One thing we keep overlooking is the fact that Survivor, CBS, and SEG went out of their way to show unusable, production-heavy footage including camera operators and producers (including sloppy angles) to demonstrate that what Kellee, Missy, Lauren, Molly, and other experienced isn’t just a perception. Survivor made it clear that Dan Spilo crossed the line and didn’t take no for an answer.

By giving Dan a formal warning, they were admitting they knew what Dan was doing and was filming it for weeks only to act when a player cried upon reflection of Dan’s actions in a confessional. While the Vokai women bonded over legitimate concerns of Dan’s uncomfortable action, it wasn’t treated as a built case towards ejection from the game.

Everything outside of allowing Dan to stay in the game, Survivor nailed the legitimacy of these transgressions. They rolled the tape; they brought the receipts; they showed that Kellee and Missy were speaking the truth. They set up Dan’s story arc so far as someone who doesn’t respect women’s boundaries.

The merge was especially dark for Dan’s edit, as well it should. As gross as it was to see, the fact Dan relished in Kellee’s elimination, remarking “yeah, put that torch down” with malice, showed Dan being vengeful. When Janet and Elizabeth discussed voting out Dan, they both acknowledged that group meeting from production was about Dan.

We even saw just how sinister Dan was in shutting down discourse about his transgressions at Tribal Council, and Jeff Probst was absolutely in the right to emphasize he will never let this conversation go until it is openly discussed. Dan said “since we’re not letting this go” on two separate occasions, and was apologetic in an “if anyone felt uncomfortable” kind of way.

However, Dan made it clear, in my opinion, by trying to shut down the conversation down at tribal twice despite production warning him about his behavior already that Dan was interested more in keeping the appearance that he could not have intentionally done anything wrong than truly feeling sorry.

The fact that he said his industry was one where the #MeToo movement was formed and was “allowed to blossom” truly illustrates that Dan didn’t get it and wanted to apologize because he had been held to this discussion. The entire point of the movement’s explosion of popularity wasn’t because Hollywood “allowed” it to become a discussion, but because people within the industry were brave enough to be open and honest about what powerful had tried to keep quiet.

Hollywood did its best to silence the voices of the oppressed. Who in Survivor: Island of the Idols, I must ask, wanted to shut down this conversation before it could fully form?

Beyond the game, or even the television show

Look, I cannot admonish the producers for the call at the moment with a fiery fervor; it’s an incredibly delicate situation that launched dozens of micro-moments that changed the landscape of Survivor: Island of the Idols. A lot of the blame towards Janet would never have happened if Kellee played her idol, and Dan went home at the merge vote. This all could have been avoided, but it didn’t, and that sucks. However, it has a 100% chance of not happening if you mitigate future unease at large and make the touch call then.

That’s why I’m finishing this piece with a more serious impact on letting Dan stay in the game at that moment; it has emboldened the worst parts of the sexual harassment and sexual assault discourse to come forward.

We saw people on television both experience actual discomfort and inappropriate touching (unforgivable series of acts), then follow up by turning their level of experienced discomfort and increased the level within discourse to influence who to vote out of the game. Later, we saw those same people downplay the level of discomfort to the accuser and lie about what a person who spoke up for them said to elevate their gameplay further, lying and gaslighting those who put themselves on the line for them.

It’s for those reasons that more people don’t come forward with accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault in real life; because even in a game, people are willing to toy with the reputation of others’ lives to further their own benefits. Imagine what 1/3 women and 1/6 men must go through when balancing out the benefits of coming forward with a report of sexual violence.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to imagine what a sexual assault is; I am a victim of it. The not knowing of what you are feeling is wrong, or just a different level of comfort shared between others, the distrust you have for your own emotions, the unwillingness to speak up, the panic of unintended consequences for speaking out; they’re all similar or shared experienced for those who encounter sexual harassment or unwanted touching.

The worst shared experience between those two levels of severity is the fear that people won’t believe you or will twist your words and turn your trauma against you. Seeing that unfold towards Kellee as a victim and Janet as a messenger reflects a grim reality facing many, and I can personally attest that reliving those experiences on television re-opened a wound that had been sealed for years.

People shouldn’t have to experience these aggressions to understand, hear, listen, and believe victims. However, because we got to a point where it was beneficial for players in Survivor to mislead or extrapolate those moments for gameplay reasons or omit them down the line, it has muddied the waters of discourse. It makes it harder for victims to be believed.

Survivor: Island of the Idols represented the merge for as honest as it could get; it was dark, depressing, and painful on several levels, and the good guys don’t always win. You could argue that Dan shouldn’t have been made into a pariah for some or a martyr for others within the game, but I’d argue that at the stage where women are crying over their level of discomfort around another person, something has gone irreparably wrong.

Turning interpersonal tragedy into gameplay should never happen in Survivor. As soon as it was forming, it should have been shut down. While I can appreciate cleaning up the mess and showcasing it as nakedly honest about what happened, I cannot overlook that the mess was allowed to happen in the first place.

The views expressed in this article explicitly belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of, nor should be attributed to, Surviving Tribal or FanSided as an organization.