For a Survivor player, especially in the past decade or so, it doesn't really matter how you start the season, as long as you're not voted out. What matters most is playing your best game at the end of the season. Play too big too early, and you'll be a target. Seize control of the endgame and impress the jury in doing so? You have a good shot at the million.
In a weird way, the same is true for a Survivor season as a whole. As long as you don't lose the audience in the early going, you can muck around and power through, despite unwanted twists, bizarre theme choices (Healers and Hustlers?), extremely poorly thought-through initial framing (Cook Islands), or unfortunate, deeply boring post-swap tribes (Raro in Cook Islands). As long as the season ends with tension, strong gameplay, and exciting characters creating drama, it will be remembered well by the audience (Cook Islands, once again).
Four weeks ago, it was difficult to see why Survivor 44 had received so much pre-season hype as a great season. At that point, it had stumbled through two medically-related departures, was still muddling around in pseudo-merge territory two votes after the tribes started living together, and generally felt absolutely smothered by producer manipulation and a Tika-centric narrative that had kept most of Soka and Ratu invisible up to that point.
After Episode 11, however, everything is starting to fall into place. We've just enjoyed three straight episodes where the players have driven the action, not twists or "journeys." There has been a quiet but fierce struggle for power between the three original tribes, with the three Tikas (the underdogs we've grown the closest to) miraculously remaining intact, as the lesser-known Ratus and Sokas dwindle. And this episode, one of the biggest characters of the season saved himself by winning immunity, and the other burst out of stealth mode and played her idol for an ally, keeping Tika's numbers strong.
So here we are, with one episode left before the finale, and we're now seeing it's titled: "Absolute Banger Season." Four weeks ago, that would have seemed laughable, an open invitation for scorn and derision. Now, though? It seems plausible.
Just as with Cook Islands, if this season's trio of underdogs reach the final four together, 44 could well become a fan favorite, especially when unique, larger-than-life characters like Carolyn and Yam Yam are in that group. It's possible that's as far as it goes, and we end up with another new-era blowout jury vote, like the fellow plucky-underdogs-persevere season, Tocantins. But if 44 *also* comes down to an extremely tight jury vote, like Cook Islands did? Then "absolute banger" becomes less risible.
Whatever ends up happening, it's important to point out here that this season has succeeded these past few weeks not because Jeff Probst threw in a boatload of game-changing new twists or advantages. In fact, this late-breaking renaissance has happened for the exact opposite reason: Production suddenly let go of the levers of power, and allowed the contestants and their decisions to drive the action. The only variables complicating the strategy were immunity challenge wins and worrying about idols. (Plus the almost-forgotten Shot in the Dark, which quietly expired this episode.) And that was still visibly, viscerally stressful for Carolyn to navigate! It's enough, maybe even more than enough, and for once, the show allowed less to be more. If you refuse to learn from your mistakes, Survivor, can you at least try to glean some insights from your successes?
Episode 11 was especially enjoyable because the relationships and the trust we've spent so much time hearing about this season actually mattered. The Tika three worked through their conflicts and held together at a crucial time. In another good production decision, this episode also had just one challenge, so there was space to show the full arc of that: Carolyn's feelings of betrayal at having been left out of the prior vote, and Yam Yam and Carson's skillful efforts to repair that damage (via lobster antenna and simply listening, respectively). There was also time to highlight the gear-grinding existential conflict between Danny's no-nonsense, all-business, fuck-your-feelings game approach and Carolyn's efforts to be her full, empathetic, emotion-embracing self at all times.
The renewed focus on the contestants the past few weeks, coupled with this week's announcement that, thanks to the writers' guild strike, Survivor's next two seasons will feature 90-minute episodes, means all hope is not lost, and there's a flickering ember of life in this show, both for the rest of this season and for the immediate future. Production just needs to stay out of the way of the gameplay. They have routinely nailed the casting, and have assembled multiple consecutive casts that would allow them to let the contestants run the season. They have the editing team to turn hours of raw footage into compelling season-long arcs and nail-biting episodes.
That said, it's alarming when Jeff Probst says things like, "if the show died — and I don’t want it to — but if it died because of me, I’d rather it died because [I] went too far." Let's hope the added length leads to more depth, and not just to more time for obstructions and distractions.
Deconstructing the pre-Tribal scrambling
There was a lot of creative time-shifting going on in the segment of the show between the immunity challenge and Tribal Council. Hairstyle- and clothing changes abound, making it difficult to parse the actual sequence of events. One key question: Did Carson convince Jaime and Lauren to vote for Heidi before or after he learned Carolyn had the idol?
To answer that, we kind of have to start at the end (Tribal Council) and work our way backwards. When we get to Tribal Council (see the picture in "Can the Tika three stay together?" section, below): Carson is wearing his purple hoodie, while Carolyn has her hair in two buns, and is wearing her purple tank and overalls. When we see Carolyn telling Carson about her idol, she looks exactly the same, but Carson is wearing his long-sleeved striped shirt. In her confessional fretting about the vote and playing her idol, Carolyn is dressed the same. In Carson's confessional about Carolyn's idol, he's dressed as he is at Tribal Council (although there's nothing in this confessional that couldn't have been filmed the next day, so it's mostly an irrelevant data point).
Working further backwards: We also have the scene where Danny tells Tika the fake plan (splitting the vote on Lauren and Jaime). There, Carolyn has her hair up in buns, but she has her white long-sleeved shirt on. Heidi is there, wearing her green tank top. At Tribal and in later scenes, she's wearing a gray t-shirt. This scene clearly came well before Tribal, probably right after the IC (which is where it appears). We also have a scene where Danny and Heidi are talking to Jaime at the well. There, Heidi is dressed as she is at Tribal, and the lighting/shadows make it look very late in the day. This was probably right before Tribal (despite it coming before Danny telling Tika the fake plan).
So finally, we have Carson talking to Jaime and Lauren (above), in which he encourages them to help split votes between Danny and Heidi (followed by him telling Yam Yam he really thinks Heidi and Lauren are with them). In both scenes, Carson is back to his striped shirt (same as when Carolyn tells him about the idol). Neither Jaime nor Lauren are wearing the same clothes they wear to Tribal, but neither is Carson. So it's clearly not right before Tribal. But was it before Carson learned about the idol (as presented in the show), or after (as seems more likely)?
There's not really anything else to go on here. It's likely that Carson learning about the idol AND Carson talking to Jaime and Lauren happened in close succession to each other. It makes the most sense that he sought them out after learning about the idol, because Carolyn wasn't yet entirely sure if Carolyn would play her idol for herself or for him. That way, there's also a backup if the idol play somehow goes awry. At the very least, there's no indication Carson intentionally brought Jaime and Lauren in to undercut the impact (in front of the jury) of Carolyn's promised idol play. He's not *that* devious. (Is he?)
Making sense of the vote
One other complication in the vote: There was a secret scene last week in which Danny found Brandon's old fake idol from way back in the Ratu days. After talking to Jaime, Danny convinced himself that the idol he found was the most likely the fake from the Ratu birdcage. But the knowledge that Danny has an idol that *might* be real had to have also factored into the splitting of the vote this week. Heidi, obviously, also had a real idol, which theoretically nobody knew about, but everyone had to suspect *someone* had the real idol that was rehidden after Danny played his for Frannie. That mystery made splitting the vote a solid plan, either way.
In this context, it then made a lot of sense for Carolyn to worry about two idols being played on Danny and Heidi (assuming Carolyn knew that Jaime/Lauren were voting for Heidi), and deciding to create a 2-2-2-1 split to counter that, with the single vote being for Lauren (whom Carolyn had previously identified as the next biggest threat after Danny). If three idols ended up being played, each on the people who had two votes against them, Lauren heads to the jury. Was this the actual Tika plan all along? Maybe the 2-2-2-1 split was Carolyn's idea? Who knows?
Having said all this, a future player could really take advantage of the crossed-out vote scenario. On a small tribe, if you want to frame someone for a vote they didn't make, say to split up a pair or something, just write down a name that raises someone's ire, then cross it out and make your actual vote. (Also, you can't vote for yourself, but can you *fake* vote for yourself in this way?)
Can the Tika three stay together? Should they?
The preview for Episode 12 shows everyone waking up to Carolyn's threat level. Jaime already seemed ready to ditch Carolyn (because of her reaction to being left out of the vote) this episode. Yam Yam and Carson are shown discussing the possibility of voting Carolyn out, seriously enough that Yam Yam seems on the verge of tears when he mentions it in confessional. Is this real, or standard preview misdirection?
Despite all this episode's talk of a Tika majority after the Ep11 vote, they don't now have an actual majority. It's tied, three Tika, three non-Tika. They need to stay together for at least one more vote to have majority numbers. Directly targeting Carolyn right here also doesn't make sense for either Yam Yam or Carson. It would both increase the chance Carolyn votes against them as a juror - especially after just saving Carson with her idol - AND make them vulnerable to a Heidi/Lauren/Jaime alliance on the last two votes. They're not dumb. They can count.
So in addition to not fitting with the season-long "Tika are the main characters" theme of the season, Tika turning on each other at the very last second doesn't make any sense for the three Tika players, each of whom is smarter than that. Sure, maybe it's not in Yam Yam's or Carson's best interest to sit next to Carolyn at the end, but she's the least likely player to win F5 immunity, so it's not like they won't have a chance then. (Although a miraculous Carolyn IC win right after they decide that would boost this season's status even higher.) Most likely, their plotting in the preview is long-term, not short-term.
This one? Again?: "Last Gasp" is, without question, a classic Survivor challenge, and one that's distinct enough from other challenges that it's fun to see it come back occasionally. This particular version of it was also really fun, because Yam Yam won. That doesn't mean it should be in every season. I enjoy eating salmon, but I would get pretty tired of it if I ate salmon for every meal. One of the flaws of the "new era" season design is the assumption that, because the contestants on the even-numbered (spring) seasons haven't seen the odd-numbered (fall) season that precedes theirs, it's fine to just repeat everything - twists, challenges, etc. This leaves the audience out of the equation entirely. Probst, probably: "Eh, who cares? Fuck them. They'll keep watching anyway."
We just saw "Last Gasp" a season ago (in this exact spot). It's still fun, but it's less welcome than something new might have been. Obviously, it's cheaper and easier to repeat challenges in back-to-back seasons, because logistically, they can just leave the challenge set-up sitting there between seasons and don't have to build something new. ("Last Gasp" in 43 was filmed just over a month before "Last Gasp" in 44 in real time.) But for a showrunner who prides himself as an innovator who would "rather it died because [I] went too far," it's really weird that having back-to-back seasons be virtual clones of each other structurally is something he also sees as a positive.