I’ve been obsessed with Survivor for the last 23 years of my life and writing about it every week for the last 7, and while the last few years have been shaky, I really think season 44 could be the one that breaks me. I’ve clung on to hope that eventually in this new era we’d reach our limit of new twists or advantages and shift focus back to the people playing the game, but this episode cemented to me, once and for all, that I just don’t think we are ever going back there.
Many are excited over the rumors of next season going to 90-minute episodes, thinking this will mean an extra 30 minutes (only about 20 in runtime) to spend on the cast and the camp life that we miss so much. Personally, however, the last 4 seasons have squashed any optimism for me, and I worry we’re just in for an even more bloated weekly spectacle of superficial bullshit, including 50% more Jeff commentary into the camera. This is no longer “Survivor” as I grew up loving and if this is what I first started watching, I don’t know that I’d have stuck around. It hasn’t been that for several seasons, but I feel confident now that Jeff is totally happy with this show continuing to go in the direction that it’s going and to anyone who thinks he’ll change his ways, I admire your spirit, but I worry for your psyche.
This recap is going to be a rant – fair warning. I’ve got a lot of issues with this episode and its implications for the future of the US franchise.
This week was supposed to be the true merge of the three tribes but, except, it wasn’t. It was somehow merge-atory 2.0 and even worse than its predecessor. Half the tribe was cut off from the other, again, but unlike last week, they stayed that way through tribal council, meaning that these mingling eleven relationships were mostly meaningless.
The episode started off with the fun thrill of Matt finding out that his idol might be fake after Brandon revealed that there should’ve been two idols in the birdcage. Matt’s life in the game flashed before his eyes as he realized that he had been set up by Danny to look like an idiot, though we know Danny wasn’t acting alone, at least; he had the show helping him make Matt the “chump.”
Danny didn’t know Matt, or anyone, was onto him at this point, so instead, he had his eyes on Lauren and the threat of her extra vote, basically saying anyone with an advantage should be a target. Danny planted this seed with Frannie, Carson, and Kane which may or may not be some new cross-tribal alliance – WHO KNOWS because we’ve hardly seen any new dynamics of “Va Va” that haven’t tied to tribal lines. After Danny walked away, Matt walked up which made this look like a gathering of the nerd minds. Again, could this be anything special? We have no idea. Much like everything else this season, this could just be random.
As random as yet another rock draw to determine teams for an immunity challenge! It really made me think: maybe Jeff is onto something. Strategy talk and social dynamics are BORING. Let’s just make everything RANDOM. No challenges, no votes, just ROCKS! Imagine a 90-minute episode of Survivor where we just cut out the lame, camp crap, bring everyone to tribal council every night – no more 26 days, just 16 or so depending on the size of the cast – they talk for an hour using only analogies and never-ending soliloquies, and then Jeff brings out the big, bag rocks to let fate *cough*Jeff*cough* decide who remains in the “game” and who leaves the island. No more of that “the tribe has spoken” shit but instead, “the rock has spoken” and to Jeff’s right is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson standing there to carry the eliminated contestant out of the tribal council area immediately. I set out with this pitch as a joke, but now that I see it, I need it! We need it! Survivor needs more rocks!
Was that not the most exciting challenge ever???
Jokes aside – although are they? Can I say “jokes aside” when this show has sort of turned into a joke? I assume this “twist” was supposed to happen again at 10 like we’ve seen in seasons 41-43 but Bruce’s medevac threw off the schedule, so things were moved around, so we saw it at 11 which meant someone had to draw a grey rock and sit out of the challenge entirely. I’m not a big Carson fan, but even I’d have been pissed if he had to go to tribal because he couldn’t nail a 1 in 10 shot of picking who was the best balancer. How would that have gone down? If “orange” lost and Carson was vulnerable at the vote, and he was voted out, that’d be a shitty way to go. He had no shot at even competing for his own life in the game – his fate would’ve come down to what, I guess, most of this season has: random (bad) luck.
Who ended up unluckier in reality was Matt who, by no fault of his own, figured he was safe to leave his bag at camp which inconveniently contained his idol and, more importantly, his Shot in the Dark, so when Frannie won the challenge for orange, it meant Matt would be going into this vote alone and without his bag of a singular trick. Jeff made such a big deal last week about “earning the merge” and now that everyone officially made it, we saw for the first time in a long time the tribe coming together to pick a name. Great, I felt like we were back on track for where we are supposed to be at this stage in the game, and then – BOOM! – Jeff ripped the rug right out from under us again for his own amusement.
I just don’t get it. You can’t even call it a “game” when the rules change constantly, decisions are forced upon players, and each week feels more disconnected from the last than the one before it. I struggle to find recurring themes and stories to talk about here because they’re so wildly different from week to week. I enjoy shifting dynamics, but I need some dynamics to start with to even get a sense of what’s happening. The show has just stripped the players of so much of their own power in the “game” that I’m not even sure we can call them “players.” They’re becoming more and more pawns in Production’s wills and whimsies that I’m losing reason to care.
I realize I just sound like I hate the show so why do I bother watching, but there’s still something there; we’ve just hit a point where there’s so much “other” stuff completely overshadows it. I can only imagine what 15-year-old me who didn’t even like hidden immunity idols would think if I told him what gets added to not just every season now but every episode. He’d run away faster than Ruth Marie running for her life from Bobdawg.
There’s a line between keeping the players on their toes and just completely fucking them over – Matt’s one was completely fucked over not once but multiple times this season, so this whole situation was just the icing on top of the shit cake. It is not enjoyable at all to watch someone’s game fall apart for many reasons completely out of their hands. The players could’ve at least been told to bring their bags to this challenge – a minimum courtesy they could’ve been given before being thrown into a storm of chaos.
It’s no surprise that in the midst of this latest game-flipping twist that not everyone’s head was on straight. I’ve seen some criticism that Frannie should have thrown the challenge after she won immunity for herself in order to save Matt and keep Danny on the chopping block, but in the middle of a challenge like that, trying to process the twist too, how could she have been expected to be playing that part of the game?
She also didn’t have the critical information that the tribes wouldn’t be going back to camp together – Matt had his “maybe” idol, his Shot in the Dark, they’d be able to talk to everyone; there were ways to save him, she may have thought, without stepping down, so she didn’t, and it paid off with a big personal win for herself. I don’t think anyone should take that away from her even if it looked like she “lost” this week by losing Matt. She fully earned that “force of nature” title Danny gave her.
A rare moment this week that made me smile!
Brandon also called her a “monster” which I worry is setting herself up as an upcoming boot. A woman who can win challenges? GET HER OUT OF HERE!!! (... but also women who can’t win challenges, get them out of here too? The rules of this show are confusing as hell)
Once the teams were split into two camps is when this twist went from bad to worse. Because we’ve seen very little dynamics of the merge tribe, the losing team just looked like 3 Ratu vs. 1 Soka and 1 Tika, so what exactly was supposed to be fun about this setup? Very quickly it was established by Brandon that Ratu was sticking together, and we knew Matt and Yam Yam didn’t have any special powers (besides Yam Yam’s Shot in the Dark) so it was just a matter of watching two of the few bright stars of this season begging and pleading for their lives. With 11 people left, there were thus only 2 realistic options of who would leave the game so real WILD stuff!
Of course there had to be a fucking note at the winners’ PB&J picnic because Jeff just can’t help himself. The victors couldn’t just eat and talk – no, they had to play another one of stupid Jeff’s stupid games. The note said there were a bunch of keys now hidden around camp and that one of them unlocked a brand new advantage in the birdcage, so we spent the next several minutes watching these six sprint around the jungle trying to find the magic key that opened the lock – that’s what Survivor’s all about, after all! Just kidding – I DON’T CARE.
Why does Jeff think people run around aimlessly in the woods is fun? It was only fun when it was Rudy fumbling around with a hand-camera going “I dunno” again and again. Watching people try a thousand keys to get an advantage that I know will fuck up the game is nowhere near as entertaining.
The note at the picnic had to be read in public, and I believe the note in the cage said it had to be read in private, but those two things contradicted each other. Since everyone knew there was something in the cage, obviously whoever opened it wasn’t going to be able to keep it secret, so after Heidi read her note pointlessly in private, she shared with the group what she had gained.
The Control a Vote advantage is just another new mechanic to suppress the voting rights of people in the game (sometimes this “fake” society in Survivor hits a little too close to the real world). On paper, it’s not the worst advantage as it essentially works like the Steal a Vote, but it just makes the person who it’s played against still write the name down. That part I didn’t hate; the part I hated is what it turned this entire episode into.
No matter what happened, this twist was going to ruin the episode’s entire narrative. Either the advantage would flip the vote, making all the time spent at the losers’ camp pointless, or it wouldn’t change a thing, making the entire time spent searching for keys at the winners’ camp a waste, so either way, we were destined to end the episode in a way that made half of it completely irrelevant. I’m sure Jeff was hoping for the flip outcome, but if he didn’t get that, he knew he’d at least get some ICONIC moment of dramatic disappointment to show the STRUGGLE and AGONY the players experience throughout the highs and the lows of the game. This is the guy who LOVED the way Cirie was eliminated in Game Changers, remember.
The only good thing about this episode for me was tribal council. Despite it potentially coming down to some dumb twist determining the outcome (the new standard, I guess), I appreciate that we finally got some open and honest dialogue. The five didn’t delicately dance around their intentions and waste our time – old Ratu made it clear they were in a consensus which meant Matt and Yam Yam were the two names on the table. Both men then showed some emotion in talking about their experiences thus far and what it would mean for their journeys to be over. It was painful watching Frannie and Carolyn feel for their #1s whose necks were on the line while the women were powerless to do anything meaningful about it. The only person who could potentially change anything was Heidi.
We knew it was coming, but I’m sure her standing up was even more dramatic in person. It would be so jarring to see someone sitting on the “jury” stand up and say anything – my first immediate thought would’ve been, “Does Heidi have to pee?” At any other time in Survivor history, Jeff would’ve erupted at someone who spoke out of turn, but with the Control a Vote to be played, he gave Heidi the floor.
Ironically, Heidi’s decision to try and save Matt, I think, sealed his fate even more than it already had been. Indicating that she wanted Yam Yam out showed that Soka wanted Matt to stay which meant that Ratu needed to side with Tika here to take out another Soka number. Based on Lauren’s lack of a major reaction when Jeff confirmed Heidi only controlled one of her votes instead of two (a question many of us had in that moment), it’s clear that Heidi’s choice had no impact on what was already going to happen. I think she only sunk Matt’s game further and possibly even her own by showing her cards. There almost needed to be some reverse psychology at play – signal that she wanted Matt out so maybe Ratu would rethink their votes and instead protect him. They went in wanting to vote for Matt anyway, but maybe they’d have reconsidered so it didn’t seem like Heidi was controlling all of their votes.
Alternatively, Heidi could’ve made a bigger move and controlled Jaime or Brandon’s vote to vote for Lauren. That could’ve triggered Matt and Yam Yam to do the same and made the vote more interesting. If 3 votes went on Lauren and the rest went on Matt to result in a 3-3 tie (Lauren using her extra vote), in a re-vote, since Lauren shouldn’t be allowed to vote, only one of Brandon and Jaime could’ve voted for Matt and the other would’ve voted on behalf of Heidi for Lauren, and Yam Yam votes for Lauren, so that’s 1 vote for Matt and 2 votes for Lauren so Lauren leaves? I don’t recall us seeing how that extra vote works if the person who plays it is one of the people locked in the tie, but wouldn’t that have been wild? Again, that still would’ve made all the Ratu/Matt/Yam Yam conversations at camp irrelevant, so a frustrating end in that regard, but a much happier ending than one of the nicest guys to ever play walking away in tears.
This poor fucking guy. I don’t know there’s anyone that the Survivor gods have hated more – I say “Survivor gods” but I don’t think they’re even that cruel. This was all Jeff and his mindless yes-men (they’re 100% all men – any women would have more compassion). “Terrible ideas for new twists and advantages that totally ruin the structure and sanctity of the game? Great! Throw them all in there! You’re a genius, Jeff!” Jeff would probably blame Matt for being a bad rock drawer – a stronger Survivor would know which rock to draw!
Matt’s story was mainly centered around his relationship with Frannie (that over-the-top montage of their mere 14 days together should’ve signified its swan song this week) but he was still such a joy to watch. He was so genuine, so smiley, and so happy despite having to put up with so much shit tossed unfairly at him. There may not have been a better man than Matt who could’ve taken this brutal beating, but he still didn’t deserve it. I’m glad he was spared, at least, of an embarrassing fake idol play, but I still think there was a lot wrong with the way he was eliminated. Matt made the merge, but he never really got to play the way you’re supposed to be allowed to play at the merge. I didn’t think he was a major target last week, so his fate was all just unfortunately sealed when the random rock draw placed him in a big pickle – or, rather, a big papaya.
I’d say I’d love to see Matt again, but he’s suffered so much that I think he should just stay home. Enjoy the rest of that fairytale life with Frannie!
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR ...
^me probably vomiting at another shitty twist next week.
ARE WE FINALLY GOING TO ACTUALLY SEE THESE PEOPLE MERGE???
Brandon’s talking about how Ratu is in control which means they won’t be, and Danny’s also on board with a Ratu leaving the game, so I assume his target will remain to be Lauren, but given the only other merge “strategy” we’ve seen, I’m going to guess that Danny is still the most likely to go. Whatever Carson is going through is probably just a red herring. Maybe he accidentally swallowed an idol that was hidden in his PB&J and now it’s causing him severe gastrointestinal distress. This always happens to the nerds.
Frannie – Anyone who thinks Frannie “made” a bad move at the immunity challenge can fuck off. There is so much out of the players’ hands in the new era that they can barely be held responsible for any of it. Plus, we’ve seen immunity taken away in twists, so Frannie could’ve worried about what stepping down would’ve looked like. People already knew Matt and Frannie were super friendly, so whether or not she wanted to let him go this soon, I think this will help her game more than hinder it. While we love to say the phrase “expect the unexpected,” that statement is an oxymoron. You can’t expect what can’t be expected, and that’s what happened to Frannie this week. In the heat of the moment, I’m sure the pressure to win immunity for herself and FIVE people weighed more heavily than just her protecting Matt – remember that Frannie has been much more focused on the game than Matt has, so while not her intent, I think this week will be a win for her in the long run. I’m glad she got her big breakout episode even if it ended in a breakup…
Yam Yam – Once again, Yam Yam scrambled his way so smoothly out of a being the boot! I think that’s three in a row for him – impressive that he keeps getting out of the hole but a concern that he keeps ending up in one. Hopefully with the actual merge next week (maybe? Possibly?) he’ll have more options, but even if up on the chopping block again, I’m sure he’ll shimmy his way off. I thought he planted the seed well with Lauren this week about Danny wanting her out and we’ll see it grow next week – it’s that kind of low-key shady play that makes me love Yam Yam and still have hope for him!
Heidi – Heidi had a big breakout too this week (even if forced and frustrating, but that wasn’t her fault). I feel like there’s a lot of Heidi that we sadly aren’t seeing; even though her move didn’t work out for her, I appreciated that we got to see her weighing her options again and thinking through her decision, much like we did when she was the swing vote at Soka between Josh and Claire. Without all the twists and extra shit to sift through each week, I feel like we’d see a lot more of Heid and her playing this game like a boss. Since we aren’t, my gut says she will go far but ultimately won’t make it to the end. Or, worse, she does and she gets treated unfairly like most other losing-finalist moms and ends up with no votes. Most everyone else has a target on their back for one reason or another, but I don’t see one on Heidi’s – maybe the best underrated, under the radar game right now, while she’s secretly got a hold of everything. I don’t know how Heidi could get voted out at this point, so I’m going to assume it’ll be another stupid twist.
Most content we got from Carolyn this week was her crying which…same, girl. I felt that hard. This was basically me finally entering the “acceptance” phase over the grief that the old show I loved is gone for good:
The only light at the end of this dark tunnel is that I can still see Carolyn winning. She’d be one of a kind, and one of the best, which is why it’s a little hard to imagine that a season I’ve been harping on so much could have such a happy ending, but I remember saying something similar about Maryanne winning 42, so not all hope is lost. That said, if Carolyn doesn’t win 44, then it very much will be.
I don’t know – I feel defeated as a fan. Not even one of the best characters ever can save this season, which tells me that no amount of great casting can bring this show back to its glory days. Jeff has fucked up so many fundamentals that made this game once so phenomenal that it’s completely unrecognizable, and I truly fear it’s only going to get worse until he leaves. I’ve said goodbye to the Survivor I loved in the US because it is dead.