As Survivor 44 heads into its finale, five players remain, of whom three (Carolyn, Carson, Yam Yam) have been the narrative's primary focus throughout the season. In the pre-merge, this perhaps could have been explained away because Tika just kept losing immunity challenges and voting people out, so we were always seeing Carolyn and Yam Yam. It also could have been because Carolyn and Yam Yam are two of the biggest characters Survivor has ever had, unique, screen-grabbing entertainers on par with iconic past contestants like Rupert and Sandra.
Now that the post-merge is also almost done, Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Carson are all still here, and each original Tika could plausibly be the season's winner. Not only that, but it's not even clear which pairing among the three is the closest: Carolyn and Yam Yam have gotten along like a bickering couple since Day 1. Carolyn saved Carson two episodes ago, and Carson pushed back (gently) on the idea of targeting her this week. Carson and Yam Yam have been voting together since the merge. All of this is a credit to the editing team, who have given the audience a deep look into a complicated, fascinating, evenly balanced trio of players.
The downside of the season-long Tika focus has been that a lot of the people on the other two tribes have received far less narrative attention. Lauren and Heidi both have interesting and uplifting stories as well, but these were more or less left untold for most of the season. Absent the edit, a case could be made for either of them as this season's winner. It's just that their games have rarely been the focus. Lauren had a tight alliance with Brandon that was never shown. Heidi seems to have a much closer connection to Yam Yam than we've seen, one that has only been obliquely hinted at. They're both originally from Puerto Rico for one thing, a first for the show, yet we have never once seen them discuss that with each other.
Hopefully this disparity in attention is something that can be remedied when the show moves up to 90-minute episodes for Survivor 45 and 46. Even with longer episodes, there will always be big characters like Carolyn and Yam Yam who will (rightly) trend towards greater screentime. But there should also be more time overall, and hopefully some of that will be spent on developing all of the characters. Survivor is in part a mystery, and that central question of "who is the winner?" is richer and more satisfying for the audience when they can't just write off multiple players because they barely heard a peep from them in the first 10 episodes of a 13-episode season.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves: We still have one more episode of 44 left, the one that answers the most important questions: Can the underdog Tika three actually make it all the way to the final three? If so, who wins? If one or more of them fall short of the finals, is that the most tragic boot ever? (Sorry, Lauren and Heidi.)
It's about as evenly balanced as a three-person alliance has ever been (which we'll get into below), and that raises the enticing prospect of the holy grail of Survivor, a tight jury vote. Alas, with an 8-person jury, there's no chance of a three-way tie. However it ends up, though, this season has indeed finished strong, and the finale promises to maintain that forward momentum up until the final minutes (unless two Tikas leave at F5 and F4.)
Nicely done, Survivor. Thank you for having some production restraint, and letting the players play the game the last few episodes. If keeping the twists and advantages to a minimum in the post-merge is the new "new era" model, it's one worth celebrating (and continuing, obviously).
The final five (three)
I wasn't going to make this a finale prediction column, because that's always a fool's errand. I believe one of the Tikas will win, but I have absolutely no clue what qualities this jury will value most. But in stating that, I realized it's more complicated than I can rattle off in a sentence or two. So with that in mind, here are the scenarios in which every member of the final five can win, in no particular order (except roughly in order of possibility, knowing nothing about who's actually in the final three). Yes, even Lauren or Heidi could win, although the edit argues they probably won't.
Carolyn has the strongest claim to the "I was underestimated the whole game" story. Up until her idol play for Carson (which came after finding and holding on to the idol for almost the entire season), everyone took Carolyn for granted. Just a harmless, perhaps loud, highly emotional player who pronounces things like "bag" and "S" in amusing ways.
This week, Carolyn dispensed with those notions, laying out to the final six just what she'd been doing with the idol (and fake idol), which woke up people like Yam Yam, Jaime, and Lauren to Carolyn's actual threat level. This was presented as a negative (because she was almost voted out, and even then could have been idoled out), but for jury management purposes, this was a good thing. If you're changing people's perceptions of you, you generally can't do it all at the last minute, at Final Tribal. It's possible - as with Omar and Jesse the last two seasons - that this uncloaking was done too early. But so far, so good.
If she can make it to the finals, Carolyn has a solid chance of winning this game. She needs to be direct and honest in her jury answers (as she always is), explaining that none of this was an act, this is how she actually is, and it's not even that she was playing anything up, it's that everyone's perceptions of her masked her threat level. It won't hurt to mention her family, and how difficult some of the boots have been emotionally, and so on. Carolyn is an absolute unicorn player, she's been 100% Carolyn and wholly unlike anyone else the entire season, and she would be an absolute unicorn winner. But an absolutely satisfying one.
Yam Yam probably has the strongest traditional strategic résumé of the Tika three. He's been perceived by everyone else as their leader since the beginning, even though it's been clear to the audience that Tika has been much more of a triarchy, a collective with no clear leader. He also has his "if you write my name down, you go to the jury" thing, which will likely play well with a modern jury. And he's relentlessly charming. Who wouldn't want to vote for Yam Yam? He's the best!
Because of that, there's a non-zero chance that Yam Yam doesn't actually reach the finals. He did try to engineer Carolyn's boot this round, after all. But it's also possible that this comes out at Final Tribal, and the jury either rewards him for it, or sides with Carolyn. A Yam Yam vs. Carolyn face-off at Final Tribal would be an epic finish to the season, no matter who wins. So let's hope we get to see that happen. The Tikas are stronger together than apart. If Yam Yam wins, he would be the first borinqueño (male, obviously) winner ever, and the first openly gay winner since Todd Herzog, 29 (!) long seasons ago.
Carson has a little bit of both Carolyn's "underestimated" argument and Yam Yam's strategic/social angle going for him. Of the three, he has the best social connections, and was able to work with the Ratus all the way up to this episode, despite betraying them multiple times.
Where Carson's prospects of winning start to falter, though, are in a bunch of areas he can't control. For one: He's very young, and it's hard to see where Carson's moves differentiate substantially from Yam Yam's. They were a tight working pair throughout the post-merge. Tika was a highly functioning minority alliance that took over the game. The jury will want to award the million to the perceived leader of that group, and they think that's Yam Yam (even though they made decisions equally, and in fact in this episode, it appeared Carson was the one who put the brakes on the Carolyn boot). If that's the case, Carson's out of luck. Furthermore, Carson was sick for part of the game, and jurors might resent having had to help him through that, then being asked to turn around and give him a million dollars. He's also a future aerospace engineer. Carson has a comfortable future ahead of him, and the jury may prefer to reward someone who needs the money more, like Carolyn or Yam Yam. It's not fair, but it happens.
Having said that, Carson does (again) have really strong social bonds with most of the jury. People like him. And he's a clear, logical speaker who should be able to state his case well. It's certainly not out of the question that he could win. He's just a likely underdog if he's up against either Carolyn or Yam Yam (or in the ideal final three, both), but he has a decent shot if it's Carson vs. Lauren and Heidi. If Carson can pull off the victory, he would set the record as the youngest winner ever.
Heidi has some possible numbers on the jury, in the three original Sokas (Matt, Frannie, Danny). She never really seemed close to Frannie and Matt, though. Heidi has another great underdog story, and an inspiring backstory of coming to the mainland US from Puerto Rico and building a successful life as an engineer. Her game suffers from her being seen as Danny's lieutenant (mainly because Danny just tells people how to vote, which is both irritating to others and reduces her perceived input). But she found an idol and kept it secret, just as Carolyn did. True, she could have toppled Tika's power structure here by idoling out Carolyn, but that just gives power to Lauren and Jaime, who had already cast five (!) votes against her. That doesn't really improve Heidi's chances of reaching the final three, whereas playing the idol for herself at least guarantees she makes the final five.
In another universe, Heidi chooses to keep Claire in Ep3, and Soka votes out Josh. Danny gets swapped instead of Josh, and the Soka pairs at the merge are Heidi-Claire and Matt-Frannie. We probably don't get the Tika comeback in that scenario, but even making all the same moves, Heidi comes out as a perceived leader, rather Danny's acolyte, and maybe she has a shot at winning. She's smart, she's calm, she's measured. She can make a strong case for herself at Final Tribal. She just has her work cut out for her here, going up against at least one Tika.
Lauren also has a great backstory as a single mom, and as someone who has overcome being underestimated by those around her, both in the game and in real life. She's now only the second player this season to have won multiple immunities. She's shown determination and resolve, but has a rocky path ahead with her last original tribemate gone and three Tikas blocking her path to the end. Should she win her way into the final three, via some combination of necklaces and fire, she has a solid case to make to the jury. She has a strong ally on the jury in Brandon, and she probably gets Jaime's vote, too. She just needs two more after that. It could happen.
As mentioned before, the case against either Heidi or Lauren winning this season is largely an editing-based one. The story of the season has been the Tika three alliance sticking together, defying the odds, and finally taking over - a storyline that's been in progress since way back in Episode 2, and finally reached its peak here, in Episode 12. We barely heard anything from Heidi or Lauren in the pre-merge. (We did hear about Lauren's extra vote, which ultimately had no effect, and in the post-merge, we've heard about Heidi's idol ... same.) Unless the Tika three suddenly become a bunch of huge jerks in the finale, it's hard to see the payoff of all three of them losing the game as a satisfying story. So one of them probably wins, meaning Lauren and Heidi most likely do not.
A model for the future?: It's not clear whether the decision to introduce no further twists or advantages from Final 10 on was made before the season, or was an in-the-moment choice made upon seeing the 3-3-3 split at final nine. Either way, this is what Survivor should aim for every time: As few post-merge disruptions as possible. As has been said before about Redemption Island/EoE, etc.: A lot of even the most objectionable twists are fine, as long as they go away at the merge. In the post-merge, the players should control the direction of the game, not production. I get that production wants uncertainty, so that even a dominant alliance has to worry about something messing up their run. That's fine. But idols are enough. At most one voting-related advantage thrown in. The mere threat of Knowledge is Power has produced better results than the actual thing. Less is more!