Kaiser Island - Ryan Kaiser's Survivor 44 recaps
Just be yourself
By Ryan Kaiser | Published: May 27, 2023
Survivor 44 Episode 13 recap/ analysis

Just be yourself

I have such strange, mixed emotions on this finale which I guess is a good thing after mostly negative feelings toward the ending of last season. On one hand, I’m ecstatic for Yam Yam and his pioneer win as a gay Puerto Rican man who was a hell of a force to be reckoned with in the social and strategic areas of the game, as well as surprising himself in the physical aspect – an across-the-board triple threat who absolutely deserves the title of Sole Survivor in season 44.

On the other hand, I am CRUSHED over Carolyn not winning. It’s weird to feel so happy yet so sad over the same outcome, but is that good storytelling or bad storytelling? I’m not sure. Going into the week, if you read my finale predictions last week, then you’ll know that I’m not shocked by Yam Yam winning over Carolyn, even having them both expected to be in the final three. What shocked me was that the game ended in yet another 7-1-0 blowout vote, but more shocking, and what really is the root of my only frustration in the finale, was that Carolyn was the zero!

What the f___

From the second we started the season, Carolyn was its main character. Yam Yam was a close second, but to me, #1 was clearly Carolyn, emphasized in her full-circle, fourth-wall-breaking confessional in the finale, closing out her time on the beach the same way it began. Therefore, it’s strange that the story seemed to be setting up such a close vote between these two major players only for it to actually end in a lopsided landslide. We’ve seen similar stories before with the “emotional” mom losing to the player who was soundly perceived as more strategic and able to articulate their control of the game, but I thought this story had a chance of breaking that mold, but the jury vote fell almost exactly into it.

I had quite the big reaction to Carolyn getting skunked, but in no way, shape, or form do I mean to sound like anything should be taken away from Yam Yam’s win. I won’t even call Carolyn “robbed” as that would imply Yam Yam “stole” the game from her. Yam Yam played an incredible game and gave a phenomenal performance at final tribal council, so he earned that win. I suppose it’s not fair, then, to say that Carolyn “should have” received some of those votes over him, but I’ll say it anyway. In particular, just from a story standpoint, I’m confused why Carson and Frannie weren’t two votes for Carolyn. Carson had a close relationship the entire time with Carolyn and he looked to be visibly coaching and encouraging her throughout the jury Q&A:


He was strategically closer with Yam Yam, I think, but emotionally it appeared Carolyn was his rock. He thus stuck to the running theme and picked “strategy” over “emotion.” Similarly, Frannie became a Carolyn stan mid-game and literally described meeting and spending time with Carolyn as “life-changing.” I thought this was one of the most transparent, obvious indicators ever to where a jury vote would go, but nope! Carolyn changed Frannie’s life, but Frannie couldn’t reciprocate with one vote that could change Carolyn’s. Just ... what the hell?

I don’t find four 7-1-0 votes in a row to be a coincidence. The jury is able to deliberate more at Ponderosa than they could in earlier seasons, so it makes sense that these final votes have become more and more near-unanimous. Even if, for example, Carson and Frannie did want to vote for Carolyn, if they knew Yam Yam was winning based on the vibe they sensed, why not choose to be on the “correct” side of Survivor history and count themselves among the winner’s winning votes? Jurors can then justify their votes however they choose after the fact.

But the 7-1-0 pattern is weird. It’s almost as if the jury decides who is going to win and then designates one person to cast a vote to formally differentiate the first runner-up from the second. I doubt it’s literally that, but something is still up at Ponderosa and I don’t like it. That, or there’s simply pressure just as much as there is in the game to be a part of the majority because that’s just more fun than to say you voted the “wrong” way.

I don’t know if this issue can be fixed in any reasonable way as I don’t support sequestering each juror in isolation immediately after being voted out of the game – that sounds traumatic and terrible for everyone’s mental health. The jury is allowed to vote however they wish to vote; I just wish they’d stop all using the same rubric when grading the final three. This comes back to the point of the show hurting itself by casting all like-minded Survivor superfans. They all know the game so well, so they know how a jury “should” vote which leads to outcomes like we’ve seen in every new era season.

Like I said, Yam Yam totally deserves his win. I just would’ve liked the vote to be closer than it was because I don’t feel that 1 vote for Heidi and 0 votes for Carolyn are reflective of their games or the story of the season, nor does it reflect how competitive this final three was. This was by far the strongest final tribal council of the new era, with all three having a strong case as to why they should win the game, along with inspiring stories outside of it that would’ve made them among the most inspiring winners from the series. If there was a triple-crowning, I may not have been mad about it.

Okay, that’s a lie. It’s called the “Sole” Survivor for a reason, and I don’t want Jeff getting any ideas on the contrary. But this was a great final three, a great final five, and a great finale overall that produced one great winner:

Yam Yam

It’s rare that one of the big personalities of the season wins, but this season I had expected one of the two of them to do just that. Yam Yam came out of the gates strong and his early relationship with Carolyn drove most of the fun energy this season had. Without the pair, I’m not sure what this season would’ve looked like. I can’t imagine it looking good – the abundance of charisma and star power from this dynamic duo was critical in balancing the black hole that the over-abundance of idols and advantages created in the first half. Thankfully, the latter half let the players breathe a little, and that’s when Yam Yam gave it the gas too (though he was no Danny).

Watching Yam Yam scramble out of early merge boot territory to the top of the tribe was truly astounding. The way Tika ran circles around Ratu and Soka was something like we’ve never seen before, and their success was in no small part thanks to Yam Yam. One of the best answers at FTC was how he explained that he used emotions of others as a weapon against them, and I think the “mic drop” moment of the Q&A for me was when he talked about observing the lack of a “twinkle” in their eyes was what tipped him off that someone was lying to him. That’s some savage reading and it’s that kind of masterclass social manipulation that propelled Yam Yam from the bottom to the top.

He worked Ratu and he worked Soka, all while working to keep Tika tight to ensure they always had the numbers, carefully distancing himself when he needed to (like during the Brandon and Frannie votes when he deliberately didn’t vote with Carolyn). For such a big, bright, colorful personality, Yam Yam knew how to blend in when he needed to so it didn’t look like he was running Va Va as much as he was, and he quickly eliminated the players who did notice what he was up to. That’s how you manage your threat level – by taking out the ones calling you a threat. It sounds simple, but it’s much harder to pull off successfully, and Yam Yam did it.

I don’t have a formal ranking of Survivor winners, but if I did, recency bias maybe or maybe not a factor, I’d rank Yam Yam pretty high just in terms of everything from being an amazing player with a moving personal story and a shining personality. If the winner couldn’t be my queen Carolyn, then I’m glad it was her best friend Yam Yam. One of them had to win with how much they were responsible for the season’s most memorable moments.

Lauren, Carson, Heidi

As for the other three who came up short in the finale, their games ended mostly how I laid out last week. Lauren was too lovable and too much of a threat to win, so she was cut as soon as she was able to be – her exit may be the most emotional of the season next to Bruce’s with just how much she fought back tears when she knew her time was up. No one found the Day 24 idol, but I did have a small hope that the editors were going to give us a flashback to Lauren finding the idol just before the votes. It would’ve been exciting, but I do think I remain more satisfied with a late twist like that not disrupting what was already bound to be an exciting ending.

As for Carson, the kid practiced every puzzle ever seen on the show, but he forgot to leave some time to practice fire. He managed to spark flame, but he was no match for Heidi. I have to admit, it was a little disappointing for such a strategically and socially dominant player to not get the chance to put those skills to the test at final four instead of fire-making, as fun as it was to celebrate Heidi’s moment as the first woman to win in this final four format and with a record time. If Heidi won immunity and there was a standard vote, what amazing TV that would’ve been to watch Tika have to finally turn on each other while Heidi sat back and watched.

We got a little emotion from the three as they practiced to go up against who they assumed would be each other in fire, but it would’ve been a completely different emotion if they had to vote – that’s why the show needs to BRING BACK THE FINAL FOUR VOTE. I honestly don’t know which way that vote would’ve gone, and maybe we’ll never know for sure since almost a year later, answers may vary. Still, Carson played an impressive game and as far as final jurors go, he fits in the club of those who were close and could’ve won. He was a little too much of a gamebot for me to be as entertained by him as the rest of the Tika three, but they wouldn’t have been the Tika three without him – they’d have been the Tika 66.67%.

Heidi also ended up a losing finalist, but not at all in the way that I thought she’d be. This was a huge night for Heidi with her immunity win, her bold move to take out Carson herself (even though I still disagree that giving up immunity at final four should be so celebrated), and her hard-fought final tribal council. Again, I don’t think the single jury vote was reflective of her overall game. She took some hits along the way, but she maneuvered so well through Soka and the proceeding Soka vs. Ratu war at the merge. Her only blind spot was trust in Tika, but that was everyone’s blind spot, so it shouldn’t be held against her too much, and she did try to make a move on them at seven when she should have. Heidi’s finish in the top three is fitting because I do feel she was one of the sharper players who knew what was going on in the game most of the time – a happy addition to my Survivor Mom Squad favorites!

Finally, last but farthest from least ...

Player of the season: Carolyn

What’s there to say about Carolyn that I already haven’t said? She was EVERYTHING this season. Every moment, every interaction, every confessional, every challenge, every tribal council, every voting booth experience – she DELIVERED. Yam Yam was the Sole Survivor, but this was Carolyn’s season in many other ways that can be celebrated.

The Survivor fanbase is a huge community of, let’s be honest, weirdos. You don’t ride this ride for 44 seasons over 22 years and not call yourself at least a little crazy – myself more than the average superfan. What makes Carolyn so beloved is her unabashedly unapologetic self about herself and that’s what speaks to so many of us. We’re weird but we love it!

Carolyn is the embodiment of embracing who you are and being who you are around everyone even if it means look like a bit of an oddball sometimes. I, like others, can 100% relate to Carolyn in that regard. While she was the kid who couldn’t keep quiet in school, I was the too quiet kid, so while the two of us may be on opposite sides, it feels like the same spectrum. While I had to come out of my shell and grow more comfortable being my funny, quirky, sometimes awkward self, she had to maybe not so much come out of her shell but go through the same struggle of being comfortable and confident in herself around other people.

Initially, I fell in love with Carolyn because she seemed like a funny lady who liked to play in the sand, rub rocks sensually against her body, and make fabulously funny faces, but when we learned how she came to be who she is in life, that love grew even deeper. It’s not easy for everyone to be so authentically themselves all the time, but Carolyn got on the giant stage of Survivor and showed everyone how they could be. It really is one of my favorite Survivor stories ever and because it hits home with so many of us Survivor nerds, that’s why she was so incredibly popular. For as unique and one-of-a-kind as she is, she’s equally one of the most relatable people the show’s ever had, so the whole Carolyn experience has just been something really special for me.

What makes the final vote hurt so much is knowing Carolyn had all those insecurities going into the game and especially going into final tribal council around the way she was perceived by others. While the jury did celebrate her unique playstyle in the end, I feel like the goose-egg vote almost instills that the game wasn’t “ready” for Carolyn and I wonder if it ever will be. Can a Carolyn win against anyone except another Carolyn? I don’t know. I hope not because there literally could never be “another Carolyn.” Either way, whether she got 0 votes or all the votes, she should take away that she’s an incredible Survivor player and I hope seeing herself succeed on the show has helped wash some of those lifelong doubts away.

I also LOVED her argument that being emotional and being strategic aren’t two exclusive things in the game of Survivor. I think she had room to sell that better and sound more intentional with her “emotional” spin on strategy, which is where Yam Yam bested her, but I agreed with her point and her willingness to explore a different path of getting to the end, one that didn’t require hiding who she was like she had been afraid to do in her past. She may not have won Survivor, but she’s a winner in life, and I’m confident that Frannie wasn’t the only person to have been a part of this season, whether in Fiji or on the couch, whose life was changed by watching Carolyn.

Carolyn was a completely new type of person to play the game and despite being so unorthodox, she was so good. Anyone who would argue she wasn’t strategic enough wasn’t paying attention. She had the correct read on almost every situation that I can recall and while evidently not as strong in relationship-building as Yam Yam, as someone who struggles with social anxiety and fitting in, it was apparent how much she was loved and adored by the people around her, so that covers the “social” part of the game too. And the physical?

Carolyn screaming

Meh, who cares. She made us all physically keel over in laughter time and time again, so that probably counts for something – being able to move bodies from thousands of miles away.

Carolyn was an all-time Survivor great from the second we met her and while it sucks to have someone cast so specifically for me carry this season as much as she did only to come so close and just miss the million bucks, I’m obviously so happy that Carolyn found her way onto Survivor to share herself and her story, opening her heart and touching ours in turn. Without a doubt, she’s the biggest name of the new era and if she wants another chance at the game, I know she’s the first on the list to be asked back, but if she doesn’t, that’s cool too. Carolyn gave it everything on that island, and I don’t think she’d play any different a second time around, nor does she need to.

Carolyn proved she could win the game by simply being who she is and playing like she did – she just lost to two people who the jury thought played better. This wasn’t a “no vote, no chance” situation. She was able to adapt to the game and the people around her, but she didn’t compromise or mute herself just to “fit in.” Instead, she invited everyone into her world and those who accepted that invitation are better for it. This season was better for it, and Survivor is better for it. “Just be yourself” was my takeaway message from the finale and the season. All of the final three connected with and embraced that, and that’s why this was such a beautiful ending to the season.

Final three

Survivor 44 had a shaky start, but my sturdy, steadfast hero throughout was always Carolyn, and she carried us to a satisfying end. This cast had a lot of great people and it remains a shame that they were at times outshined by elements of the game that no one likes except for Jeff. When the cast was simply left to play amongst themselves, that’s what gave us the best episodes. I wish Jeff would wake up and see that, but I don’t have confidence that he will. I expect season 45 to start out just as messily as 44 – may we just hope that we get some heavy hitting characters again to outweigh the bad with the good.


45 logo

BIRDS. ALL THE BIRDS. But still no T-Bird return! They’re just rubbing it in at this point ....

I’ll always look forward to a new Survivor season because this show is still the reason I have so many of the amazing people in my life that I do and it keeps me in touch with all of them (mostly to bitch about how dumb Jeff is being), but this new era has taken a lot of the fun and, more frighteningly, the funny out of what made me obsessed with it all those years ago. Survivor’s become a show about a game more than it is a show about people anymore, and that’s where it’s been losing its mental hold on me (admittedly, maybe for the best).

I’ll never stop watching, but Kaiser Island may take a break from the beach for 45 & 46. 90-minute episodes could help make the cast the more central focus of the show again, but if we’re merely in store for 30 more minutes of new convoluted, confusing, game-breaking mechanics, what fun is there to write about? A circus of twists and advantages constructed by a clown executive producer makes it hard to come up with a narrative to wrap words around, so until the US version fixes its shit, I think I’ll save my blogging brain for international ones that haven’t completely lost their minds. There’s no news on the next season of my favorite Survivor: South Africa yet, but Survivor: UK is coming back with a breath of fresh air, and I still have seven(?) seasons of Australian Survivor that I haven’t touched (I know, I know), so True Dork Times will see this dork again in time – I’m just not totally sure when! But until then, cheers!

Drinking Carolyn

Ryan KaiserRyan Kaiser has been a lifelong fan of Survivor since the show first aired during his days in elementary school, and he plans to one day put his money where his mouth is by competing in the greatest game on Earth. Until that day comes, however, he'll stick to running his mouth here and on Twitter: @Ryan__Kaiser