Wednesday’s episode of Survivor continued the biggest crisis in the show’s 20-year history.
On the penultimate episode of Island of the Idols, the show removed Dan Spilo, who was shown inappropriately touching and harassing women earlier in the season, from the game. The first ejection in Survivor history, it happened in the last two minutes of the episode, after the week’s tribal council, with host Jeff Probst arriving at the tribe’s camp to tell the remaining five contestants that Dan had been removed and that he wouldn’t be coming back to camp or be on the jury. Probst didn’t appear to tell the contestants why Dan was ejected, but after the scene a black-and-white title card capped off the episode with this explanation: “Dan was removed from the game after a report of another incident, which happened off-camera and did not involve a player.”
People was able to reveal slightly more about the “incident.” After an immunity challenge, according to People’s sources, Dan inappropriately touched a crew member:
While getting into the boat, Spilo allegedly touched a female crew member on the leg. He insisted that the contact was accidental, according to multiple sources, but the show’s production team wasn’t convinced of that and after consulting with the show’s legal team, producers decided to remove him from the show.
According to People, the incident was witnessed by at least one contestant.
Dan’s disgraceful pattern of behavior this season affords him no benefit of the doubt. Going all the way back to the first episode, Dan has been shown uncomfortably touching women’s hair, grabbing their feet, and wrapping his arm around them at night. At least five women made reference—either serious or joking—to his creepy actions, all culminating in Kellee’s tearful confessional in Episode 8, in which she identified Dan’s behavior as “a pattern.”
In other instances, Dan has come across poorly. When Kellee was voted out of the game, Dan was shown muttering, “Yeah, put that torch down,” under his breath. When he went on the loved one’s reward, he called the half of his tribe that didn’t get to go a “ragtag group of losers” in front of his 13-year-old son.
After Wednesday’s episode, Probst was asked about Dan, and he answered with an awkwardly worded no-comment: “I’ve endeavored to be as forthcoming as possible with you regarding everything that has happened this season,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “In this situation, out of respect for privacy and confidentiality, I can’t say anymore.” Probst added that Survivor is considering changes after this season, saying that “we have learned a great deal and it will inform our process and protocols on how to evolve moving forward.”
It’s a disheartening turn in what has been an overall disheartening season. But it brings one big question to the forefront: How was this allowed to go on for so long?
Dan’s inappropriate touching was apparent in the first episode of the show, with contestants Kellee and Molly noting it almost immediately. But production didn’t step in until the issue blew up at the merge, when they said they held talks with the contestants both as a group and individually and issued Dan a formal warning. At that point, Dan had already done enough on camera that it would have been completely appropriate for Survivor to remove him. Instead, they opted for the talks—but what did they talk about?
In the episode where Kellee was voted out of the game, Dan had seemingly no self-awareness about his behavior, despite CBS’s assertion that the matter had been discussed with Dan and the rest of the group. So what did those meetings entail? According to Aaron, who was voted out just a few tribals after Kellee, production never made it clear that anything serious was happening:
Our “production talk” came about 10 minutes before our Immunity Challenge. My experience in that talk was this: “Aaron, we want you to know if you don’t feel comfortable or safe, please know we are here for you. We want everyone to feel safe out here.” Very out of the blue. I thought to myself, “Is this standard? Do they do this every season?” I have no clue. Just a very vague blanket statement telling me if I ever felt unsafe, I should let production know. Roger that guys, now can I go focus on winning immunity? There was never any indication that something was going on or that someone had issues. It just seemed like a standard halftime meeting.
Missy—who used Dan’s behavior to attempt to further her place in the game—said something similar:
I did not realize the extent of the situation with Kellee and Dan. I did not connect our production meeting to Kellee and Dan either. I was very much in game mode and focused on the upcoming challenge. I felt as though production was checking in with us individually.
These quotes have to be taken with a grain of salt, as Aaron and Missy both came across poorly (at best) in the episode where Kellee was eliminated. But they do highlight a key issue: Survivor and CBS control the narrative. The show can say that it talked to the players and issued Dan a formal warning, but if those discussions were filled mostly with vague generalities about feeling safe, as Aaron says, then many contestants may not have picked up on what was happening at all.
Survivor will continue to control how this is portrayed going forward, too, with next week’s finale set to be taped four hours in advance, rather than aired live as usual. Any contestant who would like to brought back for a future season knows that they can’t exactly spit fire at CBS. With that in consideration, Kellee has been forthcoming on social media, saying that “CBS and Survivor were on notice about Dan’s behavior from the very first days of the game.”
It’s important to note that the game of Survivor exacerbates every issue at play with Dan’s behavior. Kellee didn’t feel immediately comfortable talking about what Dan was doing to her in part because she was competing to win and felt that doing so could blow up her game. The players who witnessed Dan’s behavior instead chose to prioritize gameplay over confronting him, and in some cases, exploited their knowledge of the situation as a part of strategy. That bad-faith behavior was egregious, but at the same time it’s impossible to ask contestants to deal with someone dangerous while also playing a game as physically and mentally taxing as Survivor. Therefore, it was up to the production team to make the call on Dan, and they allowed him to stay in the game, a decision that allowed him to victimize someone else.
Probst may promise that Survivor can change, but even now it’s not clear that the show has its priorities in order. In this episode, almost immediately after Probst told the cast that he’d removed Dan, the show cut to confessional where Tommy says, “Losing the wrong person at the wrong time can blow up your chances at a million. … This game doesn’t stop for anybody.” Rather than let the unprecedented moment breathe, the show’s editors mostly focused on how Dan’s removal impacts the game going forward, setting up next week’s finale. It was tonally off, a stark reminder that Survivor may not currently be equipped to handle a situation as serious as this.
This isn’t the first sexual misconduct incident to make it onto the show, but it is the only one that has hung over an entire season and raised questions about Survivor’s production. The best-case scenario for CBS now is that Island of the Idols will go down as the worst season in the show’s history, while spurring some actual change to how the show’s producers manage the safety of their contestants. The worst-case scenario is that this season becomes an existential threat to the future of Survivor. If the show can’t keep its cast and crew safe, then it is failing in its most important duty as a television production. And if it ever becomes clear that Survivor misrepresented how events happened this season, then the audience’s faith in the show as a neutral narrator of events should be shattered. But the fact that Dan was ever in a position to touch someone again has already done irreparable harm to the foundation of trust that Survivor is built upon.