Episode 9 of Survivor 44 was a bit of a mixed episode: Some really welcome moments of depth and character development, some strategic intrigue, and another surprisingly gritty immunity win by Frannie ... somewhat undercut by, as always, some unnecessary production choices.
Roughly two-thirds of this episode was great. We had a scene where the merge tribe was just sitting around camp, playing Veo Veo (I Spy), painting the flag, and talking about S/ass. We had Carolyn giving more of her backstory - organically, to her tribemates - and people like Frannie reacting positively to it. We also had complex strategy, as Tika weighed whether to side with Ratu or Soka in the even 3-3-3 split. We had a chaotic (-appearing) Tribal Council where everyone ultimately stuck to the plan, and where Tika was able to keep their cards to their chests and not reveal how they were voting. We even had almost all of the advantages leave the game unnecessarily, as fear of (the not-yet-present) Knowledge is Power led the Ratus to play musical chairs with Lauren's extra vote and Jaime's (fake) idol, the former of which was used futilely, while the latter left the game with Kane. All that's left now are Carolyn's and Heidi's (real) idols. All of these were great developments.
As this is the new era, however, we also had a pointless production intrusion into the challenge (forced sit-outs for rice, again) that made up for another pointless production intrusion (refusing to give the cast food in the first place). This was ... uh ... pointless? Frannie won the challenge, one she probably still would have won had the other four competed. But this way featured fewer people, which is apparently more entertaining?
On the whole as new era episodes go, though, it was all pretty good. We saw tensions rising between Danny and the others, as he tried to rally everyone to continue starving, as some kind of badge of honor for the season, and criticized Frannie's (correct) risk assessment. We saw Carolyn, Carson, and Yam Yam all vote together for the first time since Episode 2, as the Tika three finally revealed they are, in fact, working together. In doing so, that meant Yam Yam and Carson officially set fire to the bridge they'd been building/maintaining to Ratu.
The endgame is rapidly approaching, with just four votes left. It's a little frustrating that we're just now seeing how the players' alliances are really configured in the post-merge. It's also a bit disappointing that those are still stuck in original tribe affiliations, although there are clear divisions within those groups: Frannie and Danny openly butted heads over the boot decision, as did (via their talks with Carson) Yam Yam and Carolyn. The people in power are nowhere near unified. On the plus side, that suggests we may see some big movement over the final three to four episodes. Maybe we've already seen the seeds of those new groupings (Heidi and Lauren seemed close at the merge?), but for the most part, they're hard to project.
For the season as a whole, it's thus far been a triumph of big characters (Yam Yam, Carolyn) over big moves, and it's hard to overlook that those big characters haven't really done much except lie low and play the middle, not since the Helen vote in Episode 2, at least. To be fair, that's the best path to victory in the new era, and they've done that really well. This episode in particular did a great job of showing Yam Yam actively putting in that hard work.
Yet despite the "three stooges" alliance name, it's also been a bit of a hidden narrative: we assume Carolyn and Yam Yam are working together, yet we've barely seen them talk to each other since the merge (except about "S" vs "ass"). We mostly see Carolyn and Yam Yam talking about the game solo in confessional, not with each other. When they are plotting, they almost always are shown talking to Carson instead. Even this week's move, which formally committed the Tikas to being a group, was initially suggested by Heidi, not anyone from Tika, and was argued against by Carolyn.
It's a bit like the bizarre editing of Tribal Council this week, where instead of showing Matt and Brandon on the jury together, for the first five minutes of Tribal, they were exclusively shown in isolated close-ups, which raised the (highly unlikely!) suspicion that maybe one of them was not actually there, and this was skillful clipping to hide that? But no, once the whispering started, we saw they were indeed right there next to each other. What was the point of all that? Who knows?
As with the season as a whole, it feels like we're getting parts of the story, and not the whole picture. That could turn out fine once we see how it all ends in four weeks. We'll have to wait and see. Fingers crossed it will be worth the wait.
We have learned nothing
Here's Jeff Probst at this week's Tribal, after everyone talks about their decision whether to sit out of the IC or not: "This is fundamentally why Survivor is so interesting. Every season is different, because the players are different. And they decide these are the norms, these are the values."
This is one of Jeff Probst's views on the show that I wholeheartedly endorse. I just wish he would listen to himself. That's the whole trick to making the show interesting: just having different players. You don't need anything else!
You definitely don't need this ancient, creaking rice "negotiation." For one thing, there's no negotiating, it's an ultimatum: four people sit out, or there's no rice for anyone. For whatever reason, this "twist" is now on its fourth consecutive season. Jeff Probst has convinced himself it shows something important about human behavior and social norms, but in reality, it's shown pretty much the same thing all four times: The "social capital" earned by sitting out lasts at most one day. Let's go through the "experiment"-al data:
So the grand conclusion to all this is: Nobody cares who sat out for rice. Not much, anyway. Chances are, with half the cast sitting out, one of them is going to end up a target fairly soon, and if they're not one that same day, they will be the next. Especially when you can also look at it this way: every set of sit-outs also included someone who ended up a finalist. So people either really reward someone sitting out, or they don't at all ... or it's somewhere in between. Great experiment, again ... because half the cast sat out. Forcing *one* person to sit out might tell you something about how the players value self-sacrifice, this particular experimental design tells you absolutely nothing. Can we please do something else now?
The bigger problem is: These coerced sit-outs are only in the show because US Survivor has decided to no longer give the contestants food, ever since the "new era" started. Note, of course, that they also did this in Marquesas, but there were still plenty of food rewards and only two tribes (and an early eating-based challenge), and even then, the remaining cast were all Steve Wright-ian horizontal zombies after Day 30 or so. So why do it again? Because Probst likes seeing people suffer, and thinks his intended audience of kids also does, I guess? Once they get to middle school, kids generally become solipsistic assholes, so I guess it's possible.
Among the English-speaking international Survivor versions, the current US format is the only one that doesn't give the contestants rice (AU also gives them beans). And apart from the Marquesas experiment, it's not like this is some hallowed tradition that can never be altered. It's been in effect since ... [checks notes] ... 2021.
Obviously, this change was made as an "added feature" to the new era format changes, but honestly, I don't understand the thinking here. "You're only playing 67% as long as before, so we're giving you 0% of the food" is some real Culpepper math. What exactly is entertaining about seeing the recently-ill Carson dozing in the dirt, Marquesas-style, complaining about feeling worse than the day before, because he hasn't had any food since the reward a few days earlier? (Most of which - and probably more - he'd vomited up?) This is all just willful cruelty masquerading as making the game "hard."
That kind of attitude (echoed by Danny this episode: "We can starve for 30 days!") is ridiculous. This is Survivor, a social-strategic game. It's not a survival/sociopathy show. The point of the show is not to make the players suffer, then rake in those sweet, sweet streaming numbers as people tell each other, "Wow, I can't believe how terribly Survivor treats the contestants now!"
So just give the players rice again. As for the benefits of doing so, just look at this episode. Everyone talked about how after eating, they could think again, that they felt human again. And how did that work out? Probst himself, by his own admission, was delighted to have "the best seat" to observe all the whispering at Tribal. That was a direct result of them eating! They had the energy and the brainpower to try to shake things up in the game. That's what the show wants, right? So just let them eat!
Carolyn was right
How did everyone end on Kane as the "biggest threat," exactly? As he himself pointed out in confessional, he was the only person still in the game who had yet to vote someone out. (This lack of success, while twice the result of idol plays, fell just short of being record-setting.) As a big guy, he was tagged as a "challenge threat," but in the two individual challenges in which he appeared (the final round of last week's split pairs/individual IC, and "Audio Slave" before that), he was first out or second out in his group.
Still, he seemed like an interesting guy, and Heidi correctly assessed that he's smart. Maybe severing his nerd connection with Carson was a good idea for everyone not named Carson. Overall, the decision to target seemed to mostly be driven by the fortuitous alignment between Heidi's initial suggestion (also keeping the two Ratu women in the game, getting closer to gender parity, now with a 5-4 advantage to the men), and Yam Yam's bizarre Arya Stark-esque list of names of people who have wronged him. (Which included Matt, who only voted for Yam Yam because he had to.)
So where does Tika go from here? They finally all voted together again this week, for the first time since Ep2. But with only one vote for Danny being read, they revealed to Jaime and Lauren that they weren't really with them, after all. Or at least Carson and Yam Yam did, Carolyn was the last person in on that "alliance," so she should receive the least blowback. It's possible that now that Lauren and Jaime have been relieved of their (alleged) advantages/idols, Soka may want to join up with them and follow through on Frannie's request to target Yam Yam and/or Carolyn.
Notably, Frannie was the first person this season to notice that the Tika "three stooges" are coasting to the end, playing the Soka and Ratu tribes against each other. But of the Tikas, the best-hidden is Carson. When Frannie proposes splitting the vote on Tika, she throws out Carolyn and Yam Yam as the targets, not Carson.
In that sense, he's playing a great game so far, managing his perceived threat level perfectly. Still, you have to worry that his age and illness could add up to Xander-like zero-vote-finalist finish. If jurors feel like they went out of their way to take care of him during his rough patch in the game, they're going to resent him if he tries to trumpet his superior strategy. (This is, in part, the problem Dawn Meehan faced in Caramoan.) Yam Yam has played the most out-front game of the three, and if he's a finalist, he should have no problem receiving credit for his moves. But Carolyn and Carson might face more incredulity. They've both been lurking in the shadows so far, and each will need to kick their games into a higher-visibility mode at some point in the next three (or four) episodes in order to win.
Then again, Gabler never really did, and he won in a landslide. So maybe the moral is "never try"? Regardless, it'll be interesting to see how Tika adapts to suddenly having people aware that they're in the ostensible power position.
Lauren, the non-voting queen: So far this season, Lauren has missed out on voting (or at least controlling her own vote) three times. In the premiere, she banked her parchment, which she had been carrying around ever since (above). In the split Tribal where Heidi played her Control-a-Vote advantage, Lauren was the unlucky victim, so Heidi decided whom Lauren's vote was for (as with a Steal-a-vote), not Lauren. This episode, Lauren handed off her extra vote to Jaime to use, meaning Jaime received credit for it. Adding it all up, Lauren has cast a vote under her own free will just three times, while Jaime (who attended all the same Tribals) has voted six times. The new era: If it's not Beware Advantages, it's something else taking your vote away.
Better when it's not there: Knowledge is Power has worked best in the past two seasons when it's merely been a threat, rather than openly wielded. Last season, Jesse came away with two (real) idols as players tried to dodge James's active KiP. This season, in this episode, the Ratus shuffled their items around prior to Tribal, despite KiP not actually having made an appearance (yet). Of all the new era twists, this one has produced more than it's share of chaos and comedy, despite never actually working as described in the paperwork. As someone who criticized the way it's supposed to work, I couldn't be more pleased with its newfound second life as a general boogeyman. A belated "well done" to production for this.