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Thirty-seven seasons into its run, Survivor still has new tricks up its sleeve. Case in point: the historic elimination during the latest David vs. Goliath Tribal Council, in which SWAT cop Dan Rengering played a hidden immunity idol on himself, only to have that protection dissolved thanks to a new advantage called the idol nullifier. It’s the second massive blindside in a row, following professional wrestler John Hennigan’s loss at the hands of Davie Rickenbacker, Nick Wilson and Christian Hubicki one week earlier.
For anyone in need of refreshment, here’s the backstory of how the latest elimination came together:
• In the first three days of the season, Dan discovered an immunity idol on Goliath beach. Roughly two weeks later, he found yet another idol while living with the green-buffed Tiva tribe, giving him two critical advantages against the rest of the field. Virtually everybody knew about Dan’s first idol, which he misplayed during last week’s Tribal Council. Virtually nobody knew about the second idol, save for one person: Kara Kay, Dan’s fellow Goliath and would-be romantic interest — “the Supergirl to his Superman,” one might argue, except Supergirl and Superman are cousins, which makes things a little weird. Moving on!
• Shortly before Dan found his second idol, the David tribe’s Carl Boudreaux found himself stranded on Exile Island, where he found the idol nullifier, introduced on Survivor this season. The nullifier can negate an immunity idol’s power, but only if the nullifier is played for the person who ends up on the receiving end of the idol, not simply the idol’s original owner.
• Following the first vote of the merge, the David tribe’s Nick discovered an advantage of his own: the vote steal, a permutation of the extra vote advantage introduced in season 30. It’s been featured in seven seasons, David vs. Goliath included. Following John’s elimination, the David tribe was at a numerical disadvantage against the old Goliaths, with five members against six; if they used the vote steal in this most recent round, the Davids could — you guessed it — steal a vote from the Goliaths, flipping those numbers on their head.
Which brings us to Wednesday’s episode, in which Nick and his fellow David allies did exactly that. Right before voting commenced, Nick announced his advantage and used it to steal the vote of Goliath’s Alison Raybould, with Nick’s two votes and the rest of the David lineup piling all of their votes on Dan. Simultaneously, Carl played his idol nullifier against Dan, guaranteeing an end to the so-called “Hot Cop,” even if Dan chose to use his idol on himself. With Dan gone, the numbers are now even between the original Davids and Goliaths at five players apiece, thanks to the historic first use of the nullifier — and the second correct use of the “extra vote,” for that matter.
“You would think that having an idol, you’d be golden,” Dan said in his final words. “But I just got knocked out of the game. Who knew there was a daggone idol nullifier? Who ever heard of that?”
In addition to its unprecedented nature, Dan’s downfall via the idol nullifier and vote steal combo platter yields an additional side effect: dissent within the Goliath ranks. While they didn’t vote for him directly, ex-Goliaths Kara Kay and Alec Merlino voted for their old tribe mate, Angelina Keeley, once Alison’s vote was stolen, as a means of protecting Alison in case the votes were headed her way. “Your name was a contingency plan,” Alison tells Angelina in the official preview for next week’s episode. It doesn’t sound like the explanation will go over well, based on Angelina’s response: “The Goliaths don’t know how vicious I can be.”
For Alec, voting for Angelina was a long time coming, as the surfer bro spent the past nine days of the game considering ways to work with the Davids. Alec, who already turned against former ally Natalia Azoqa earlier in the game, recently explained his Survivor philosophy to The Hollywood Reporter as follows: “I don’t like the term ‘flipping.’ Flipping implies that I was supposed to play with Goliaths the entire time. I went on Survivor to play with the people that I could trust and that I believed would get me furthest in the game.”
For Kara, it’s the culmination of her entire game, as she was always depicted as viewing her dynamic with Dan as a strategic partnership, rather than an emotional one. (“Dan’s in a showmance; Kara is in a strategy,” the previously eliminated Jeremy Crawford famously said earlier in the season.) Even though she didn’t strike against Dan directly, her move against Angelina shows her interest in carving a new path toward the end of the game. It also signals a potential bitter roadblock should Kara make it to the end of the game and find herself on the wrong side of Dan the juror. As he said in his final words: “I’m pretty sure Kara flipped her vote. That hurts a little bit. If she wants to work on the bottom of the Davids, then that’s her problem, not mine.”
For the five remaining Goliaths, then, it’s a fully upended ballgame: Alec, Alison and Kara have all shown recent willingness to work across the aisle with the Davids, while Angelina — one of Goliath’s most vocal advocates all season long — is now left to nurse the wounds inflicted by three votes from her former tribe mates. It’s easy to see her wanting to team with the five Davids to make a move against her newly revealed enemies. As for the fifth Goliath, filmmaker Mike White? A much as he’s shown an interest in staying “Goliath strong,” he’s likely going to have a hard time herding those cats together moving forward, if that’s his desired path.
Until next week’s Survivor, all eyes remain on the freshly eliminated Dan Rengering. In losing Dan, the game loses its second clearest physical embodiment of the Goliath legend, following the fallen Mayor of Slamtown.
“[My] take is that Dan is in the midst of a major life transition and that makes him a complicated fella,” executive producer and host Jeff Probst told The Hollywood Reporter during a recent interview. “If you look at his recent past, he was overweight, lacking confidence and on some level aware that he was not living up to his full potential. Something triggered inside him and he started making big changes to his life. He shed his skin and emerged as a new version of himself. This version is handsome and athletic with a chiseled physique. It’s given him a well deserved boost of confidence. But it’s important to be able to balance confidence with a nice dose of humility, and I think that’s the part that Dan is still sorting out.”
How is Dan now, dealing with the blindside months after the fact? Read on for what the most recently eliminated Survivor player tells The Hollywood Reporter about all of that and more, including the story behind finding his two immunity idols, the pain he feels when thinking back on his close connection with Kara, why he wants to play again, and more.
You relived your elimination for months before you watched it back on television. Was it as bad as you feared?
I think it was worse in my head than it was when I watched it. In my mind, there was nothing I could do. Watching it on TV, it was like, yeah, there was literally nothing I could do. The Survivor gods got me.
Does that take the sting out of it somewhat, that not only was this a historic vote, but there was also very little you could do to plan for the nullifier?
Absolutely. Knowing they had to use not only the idol nullifier, but also the steal-a-vote? I didn’t see myself as big of a threat as they did, but the fact they respected my game and thought I was such a big threat that they had to pull out two different advantages to take me out. Just the fact that they had to use so much to get me! It means a lot that they respected me that much. Like you said, it’s historic. An idol nullifier had never been used. Now it’s something future generations of Survivor players are going to have to think about, and it’s because it got played on me.
Do you think the nullifier is an unfair advantage, or is it just the way Survivor goes?
I’m split on that. The game of Survivor is always evolving. It’s always changing and growing. That’s part of what makes Survivor great. But it’s frustrating because I didn’t know about it, and it took me out. As a fan, watching it? I would have been like, “Wow, yes! This is so great! This is the coolest thing ever!”
But as a Dan experiencing it?
Yeah, not so much. (Laughs.) In the moment, it was like, “No! Oh my god! This is awful! This is terrible!” My whole thought process, and the way I watched Survivor, is that an idol is sacred. Once you play it, you’re good. But that’s what’s good about the game. It’s always changing and getting better, finding new ways to get people out.
Why do you think they targeted you?
I don’t know. I was trying to play low key. When we were on Goliath, I would always say to Alec, “If you want to do the individual [parts of the challenges], please, by all means, go ahead.” I tried to lay back as much as I could. But I’m a bigger personality than I realize, I guess. Even watching the show, I didn’t see myself as taking the lead a whole lot, until people started pointing out certain things on social media and whatnot. I guess I was a bigger threat than I realized. Maybe they were afraid I was going to make an immunity run. That was my goal. I wanted to beat [Survivor: Game Changers runner-up] Brad Culpepper’s record, get six wins.
You weren’t thrilled with certain members of Goliath who veered from your plan. Why were you frustrated with Kara and Alec in particular?
The biggest frustration is when we were on Goliath, we constantly preached, “Goliath strong.” We all firmly believed that if a David made it to the final three, they would win, no matter what. Everybody loves an underdog story, even us. That was my biggest frustration. We were preaching “Goliath strong,” and we were strong in the Elizabeth vote, strong when John got taken out… I was under the impression we were going to be strong on this next vote, too. Not that it would have mattered, but that was my big frustration. I’m the type of person who does something when he says he’s going to do it. If we’re preaching “Goliath strong,” then by god, that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re going to take care of our team and get everybody through it. That was my biggest frustration.
Did you take it personally? You and Kara were certainly close…
No, not at all. It’s a game. Everyone’s out there to win a million dollars. You can’t take anything personally that happens out there. Not at all. Nobody attacked my character. You can’t take it personal.
You’re so diplomatic. I saw the “Fake Friends” T-shirt, Dan!
No, man… (Laughs.)
Tell me what’s going on. It’s just us right now. This is definitely not going anywhere on the internet.
Look, nobody likes fake friends. How do you know there isn’t stuff going on in my personal life? It just happened to time up at the same time. (Laughs.) Come on, man.
Who were you closest with on the show?
On the show? John, and definitely Kara. That’s obvious. I’m the kind of person who likes to talk things out and springboard ideas, even in my personal life. Every decision I make, I talk it through with the person I’m closest to. She was the person I was closest to.
Why? How would you describe the connection with Kara?
I don’t know. We just clicked. It was easy conversation back-and-forth. She was so easy to talk to. The easiest. She never gave me any bad vibes that she was going to backstab me or anything. Granted, I totally misread that, obviously. But she never gave me any weird feelings that I couldn’t trust her. She was so easy to talk to and to connect with. We talked about so much stuff that was in and out of the game.
Does that make it hard to watch the season back, considering how much of your story was wrapped up with Kara?
Yeah. Absolutely, it’s difficult. It makes me question my judgment on character, and who I can trust, even in my personal life. It ended up biting me in the butt, and it makes me question who I can trust in my real life. Am I making the right decisions about that?
Talk me through the stories of finding your two idols.
The first idol, we were all hanging out at camp. Nobody was around, and we were like, “Where is everyone? Let’s go look for the idol.” We all walk around looking together, and when I found it, it’s wrapped around this big rock. There was no way I could hide it. I’m not just going to leave it here and hope nobody else finds it. I felt obligated to tell them about it. If I didn’t and I tried to be sneaky, then I’d look bad and immediately cause distrust. I felt I had to tell them, or it would ruin my game in some way, shape or form.
The second idol, it was so much fun to find. It was awesome. Here’s something they didn’t show: when I found the note, shortly after, Christian comes walking up. I have this piece of bamboo in my hands. I hadn’t even opened it yet. I slung it behind my back and into the woods. We’re sitting there and chit-chatting, not a big deal. Then he goes away, and I go to look for it again — and the next thing I know, Alison and Gabby come walking up. I’m sitting there and chit-chatting with them now. It takes ten or so minutes to find the idol clue again. It was so bad. (Laughs.) I was like, “You gotta be kidding me. I find this sucker, then I lose it, and now I have to go and find it again?” So terrible.
But finding the idol at the challenge? So nerve-racking. I grabbed it and my first thought was to put it in my waistband. But no way. It’s too big. So I immediately went into cop mode: “Where do I find lots of drugs? Hidden in places where people wouldn’t normally look for stuff.” That’s why I had to tuck that thing into my pants. It was a mess, man. I adjusted so much while I was there. (Laughs.) I was hoping no one would notice, or they would think I’m just chafing or something, because it looked really bad.
What’s your happiest memory from your time out there?
My Survivor happy place was at Tiva, for sure, with the brochachos. We had such a good time. We didn’t talk a whole lot of strategy. We didn’t have to. We were all fairly confident we weren’t going to end up at Tribal. We all had a really good time. It was almost relaxing. We were playing, but not heading to Tribal. We had such a good time following the four rules of being a brochacho, doing pull-ups and making sure our hair looked good. (Laughs.) It was such a good time.
What’s the opposite of your happy place?
That first week, man. It was miserable. It was raining and cold every single night. It was so bad. That was rough. We were cold, it was windy, we had no fire. We even won the daggone fire starter, the flint, and we still couldn’t get fire for two more days. I was not in a happy place.
But you would do this again, based on what you posted on social media after your exit episode aired. You would go back and play, even with all the pain you remember?
By all means. They could call me right now and tell me they need me in a week, and I’m there. I would drop everything to make it happen. I loved it. Single greatest experience of my whole entire life. I met so many awesome people, between the cast and the producers. Jeff is freaking amazing. I love that guy. He’s so quick, so smart. I loved competing daily, in anything and everything. It was a blast. I never would have met any of those people. I made lifelong friends from this. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Would you play differently?
I can’t tell you too much, in case I go back. Someone might read this interview.
But I already told you, this definitely isn’t going anywhere on the internet.
Oh, it’s just you and me right now? (Laughs.) Of course I’ll play differently. Doesn’t everyone learn from their first game? Almost everybody plays better in their second game. You learn and you grow. I’ve already grown in my personal life because of Survivor. You get better and you grow.
Fair enough, but as far as the specifics, you’re keeping those hidden in a place no one’s going to search…
They will be in my pants, as me and Ryan Ulrich like to say.
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