Where Episode 4 was hurried, densely packed with production-engineered plot points, and almost bereft of organic contestant interactions, Episode 5 felt like it had one mission: To deliver all the player content it didn't have time for the previous week. And that was great!
As an audience, we finally got to see Carson interacting with more than one person at Ratu. It turns out that Kane, who at 25 is the third-youngest player on the season, had been longing for a fellow non-"old" person to nerd out with, and Carson happily obliged. We also were shown more of Jaime at Soka, hoping to use her treasure trove of Ratu-specific information to connect with her new tribemates, while somehow failing to notice that Matt and Frannie were pretty close.
But the highlight — and a wise choice to build the episode around — was all the time spent with the rapidly dwindling Tika tribe. There, tensions were high after Carolyn had sided with Josh over Yam Yam on the last vote, and everyone was scrambling to avoid becoming the titular "Third Turd" who would be voted out at this episode's (never appearing) Tribal Council.
Not only that, but production made another flawless decision: To replace the requisite third "journey" dilemma with just a simple food reward, one at which Brandon, Danny, and Carolyn were all present. This allowed actual cross-tribal discussions, right before next episode's merge, and it provided actual, contestant-driven drama, as Brandon and Danny bro'ed out, talking about their challenge prowess and pledging to work together post-merge, apparently completely forgetting that Carolyn was also there. There was a little luck involved here, as Carolyn was the perfect person to both be overlooked by these two AND to comment about it so hilariously, but regardless, this was infinitely superior to turning a shipwheel or grabbing advantages out of a bag (or losing votes).
With a cast this strong, all production really needs to do to propel the action is put them together in small groups like this and film. Carolyn and Yam Yam are both more than capable of doing both fun and interesting things, then talking about it. As we said just two weeks ago, "There's a good season buried in here somewhere, we just need a Carolyn to dig through the poop."
Where the merge takes us
It's a little hard to see where this season is going in the post-merge, because all of the strategy/voting action so far has been at Tika, who hit the merge with just two core members, plus the interloping Josh (plus Carson in exile on Ratu). It's not clear whether Carolyn and Yam Yam are truly back together as a duo, or if Josh will stick with them (seems unlikely), but this episode did make a fairly emphatic promise that Carolyn's post-merge quest will be to take out people like Brandon and Danny. Can she collect the allies to do that? We'll see.
The other two tribes are much more difficult to read. Ratu had a chaotic first Tribal, in which only one cast vote was counted, and you have to comb through exit interviews (Maddy, Matthew) to be aware that Lauren and Brandon are pretty close. Matthew had a barely-shown alliance with Kane, and they both worked to bring Carson in after the swap. Will that hold? Well, Carolyn needs allies, and Carson was one at one point? But maybe a Carolyn (+ Yam Yam) + nerds alliance - maybe even with Matt and Frannie? - could become a thing. (To quote Stephen Fishbach: "Fan fiiiictioooon!")
Then there's Soka. Josh will probably try to work with his old tribemates, since Carolyn already told him she was planning to vote him out this week, and he seemed unaware the Sokas also were the week before. So he could be an easy consensus vote early on in the post-merge. But after that, Soka has two clearly delineated pairs: Danny and Heidi vs. Matt and Frannie. They've previously stated they planned to work together long-term, but it's not really clear that's what Frannie (or Matt) really wants, and we just saw Danny make an alliance with Brandon, which seems like a more logical fit for him, but not for the showmance couple.
And then there's Jaime, whose closest Plant Daddy ally just left the game, doesn't appear to have strong ties to the Sokas. Where does she (and her dead pre-merge idol and fake idol) fit in? With Carolyn and Yam Yam, maybe?
So there are a lot of question marks here. Neither Soka nor Ratu seems all that likely to hold together, but maybe the Tika two can ... if they can first find a way to both feel in control of the decision-making.
In recent seasons, the people giving confessionals during the trailer for the next season have been a fairly decent indicator of long-term characters. For 43, those were Jesse, Karla, Noelle, Gabler, Cody, Sami, James, and Elie (the one person who missed the jury phase). For 42, it was just Mike, Drea, and Jonathan. Who made the cut for 44? Just four: Brandon, Carson, Carolyn, and Yam Yam.
That feels pretty accurate for this season, as all have felt like main characters so far. But three of the four being the sole remaining original Tikas? Wow. Last season continued the (post-Philippines) three-tribe-season trend of the winner being the finalist who attended Tribal the fewest times in the pre-merge. (This is probably because a good chunk of the jury were their tribemates who also attended Tribal very few times in the pre-merge.) Can that really be true here? Of the remaining players, that's anyone originally on Ratu or Soka, except Josh, which doesn't narrow it down much.
Still, if Carson, Yam Yam, and Carolyn are all late-gamers, maybe the promised anti-bro mission Carolyn was pledging to carry out could have legs. It's hard to imagine Carson or Yam Yam not breaking away at some point and doing their own thing(s), though. Let's hope that whatever happens, the entertainment level stays high.
See you soon, Matthew? Matthew was one of the more innovative thinkers the show has had in recent years, coming up with a strategic use for the Shot in the Dark, creating his own fake idol and hiding it to make it look more authentic (compare and contrast to Josh's almost-identical fake in this episode), and somehow using that trickery as a social bonding tool. It's nobody's fault but his own for the shoulder injury, but it still sucks that it happened and cut his dream short like this. In the long list of deserving returnees (and a returnee season probably coming in the 45-46 cycle), he should be near the top.
Maybe it's Soka: Jeff Probst made a big stink about Claire sitting out of every one of Soka's first three immunity challenges, so what does Soka do with their brand-new tribemate Jaime, who arrived in the Jeff Probst-approved single player swap in Ep5? Have her sit out of every challenge. (Nary a peep from Probst has been heard.)
Probst and the scientific method: As he tells Tika about Matthew leaving the game, Probst tries to pump them up with, "This is a great example of the absolutely *UNPREDICTABLE* nature of Survivor." This may help explain why he thought the absolute abominable Do or Die twist was a good concept. It's also unpredictable ... therefore it's Survivor? Having a 2/3 chance of losing your vote from a journey you drew the short stick to go on? Also unpredictable ... thus, Survivor. Deep sigh.
(Devon Pinto voice): That is *not* Survivor.
Honestly, we're like one step away from: "if it weighs the same as a duck, that means it's made of wood, and therefore it's ... Survivor!"