This was a different season from the usual Survivor. Most notably, it was a season where - as Jeff Probst himself pointed out at Final Tribal - everyone was mostly supportive of each other, everyone got along, and the contestants remain friends outside of the game. That Yam Yam - one of the most exuberant, charming contestants ever - ended up winning feels just right for this particular season. It all felt very Ted Lasso ... and that's fun for a change!
Strategy-wise, there weren't really any massive, earth-shaking moves. In fact, the biggest move was probably one that didn't happen: The strength of the Tika three's mutual friendship kept them from turning on each other, which was why we ended up with the satisfying outcome we did. The surprising strength of the Tika three's collective bond was the story of the season. Any finale where they took each other out before the final three would have felt just ... wrong.
In getting to that ending, the Tikas had to battle all the way back from the smallest numbers at the merge, to finally being the dominant power at final five. The social-strategic efforts they made to stay together while dividing and conquering the Ratus and Sokas was the real "move" of Survivor 44. It was also one that was comprised of many smaller, subtle moves - Yam Yam and Carson pretending to be with the Ratus as they allowed Danny to idol out Brandon, Yam Yam and Carolyn pretending to fight to conceal how tight they were, Carolyn faking tears to cover for telling Carson she would play her idol for him - some of which didn't even make the show. But it was all an important part of their success, and combined for a masterful ensemble performance.
This season worked because the biggest characters were also the underdogs who rallied together, and pulled off a surprising upset victory. In that sense, it was as Matt described it: "An absolute banger season." But it a more accurate sense, the Tikas not only saved themselves, they saved the season. And a big assist for all the positive things that happened has to go to production, who allowed the incessant barrage of unnecessary and obstructive twists to suddenly subside at around final nine. At that point, the playing field was evenly matched, with three Tikas, three Sokas, and three Ratus remaining. The rest of the season played out like a normal Survivor should, and the audience was all the richer for it.
Having said that, up until then, it had been at best a frustrating season. For the audience, the first half of Survivor 44 felt a lot like Frannie's experience at the Ep7 Tribal Council. As you'll recall, she'd just won immunity, something that made her feel great in the moment, Heidi had found an advantage ... things were looking up! But then she had to watch in mute horror as her closest ally and future boyfriend Matt was voted out by the Ratus, and there was nothing she could do about it, thanks to a production "advantage"/twist that had to be played.
Especially in light of the monthlong pre-season barrage of over-the-top praise for the 44 from CBS, Jeff Probst, and so on, Episodes 1-7 were just bewilderingly underwhelming and/or unsettling for the audience. After hearing "this cast is special" so often, it was not "special" to see one of them leave the game with a head wound/concussion in the first 30 minutes, and another leave the game for medical reasons four episodes later. Three fun-seeming superfan young women (mostly unseen) were voted or idoled out in the first three episodes, and there was little they could do to stop it, mostly thanks to the fourth straight season of tiny tribes, which this cycle was made even worse by multiple people either choosing to or being forced to lose their votes.
So it felt like the season was careening irreparably out of control when production's insistence on random-drawn teams in Ep7, the second "merge-atory" episode. Despite the three tribes living together as one for two full episodes at this point, this one again had tiny tribes (now random teams), which led to Matt's tear-filled exit. It was the Michelle Yi boot twist from Fiji all over again, except here, Frannie was forced to watch. But after that, all of a sudden ... there was a normal vote! The next week featured the final production interference with gameplay (forcing four people to sit out of the immunity challenge in exchange for rice), and there was another normal vote! After that, the skies cleared, the chains fell off, and the eight players remaining were given the opportunity to finally play an essentially normal game of Survivor. And because this cast was (again) special, they made a great showing of it. Episodes 9-13 were a mostly banger half-season.
As Survivor fans, we can only hope production learned a lesson from this season. The pre-merge/merge-atory morass was viewed increasingly disgruntledly by fans as it stumbled along, whereas the last five episodes were widely adored. It wasn't that people we liked were doing well or poorly - we liked pretty much everyone. The obvious difference was, the players were playing the game at the end, whereas in the first seven episodes, they were (mostly) being played by the game. The former is enjoyable reality-competition TV. The latter is just TV.
How close did we come to disaster?
While on the whole this season worked out - due largely to the cohesion and social-strategic acumen of Yam Yam, Carson, and Carolyn - it's important to realize that it very nearly didn't. Production did make some welcome changes to the new era pre-merge format this time around, in removing the advantage/shipwheel component of the second and third "journeys," trading them in for a (possibly even worse) swap and a cross-tribal feast, respectively. That was a relief, but it doesn't excuse the problems with the first journey, which hung around like a particularly pungent fart, stinking up most of the pre-merge.
The Ep1 journey *required* every attendee to risk their vote and draw a scroll of paper from a bag. There was no choice on that first draw. Unsurprisingly with 2-in-3 odds of it happening, Matt and Sarah both lost their votes there. Important note: the Tikas sent Sarah there completely randomly, because they drew straws (or as Yam Yam phrased it, pulled sticks). Now consider how their first vote might have gone differently if Carolyn (who really wanted to go!) or Yam Yam (who also wanted to go!) had drawn that long straw.
The effects of that random draw played out in Episode 2, as the underpowered Tikas - already lacking their strongest guy in Bruce - finished last in the IC, after reaching the final element (the snake maze) last, in part because the preceding elements required some group strength. Facing Tribal, there were two factions, each of them thinking Carson was with them: The younger players (Helen and Sarah) and two-thirds of the future Three Stooges (Yam Yam and Carolyn). Why did Carson choose the latter? Well ... if you believe the edited version, he said he had a chaotic side and a logical side, and he went with the chaotic one. In reality, he knew Sarah didn't have a vote, so he was potentially facing a 2-2 tie and a rock draw if he stuck with the younger pair, or a simple 3-1 majority if he voted out Helen. That seems more like going with the logical side (which to be fair was also chaotic, so ... win-win there).
So again, if Carolyn or Yam Yam had gone on the Day 2 journey and had the same luck as Sarah, which was the most likely outcome ... Carson chooses Helen and Sarah in Ep2, and we would have lost Carolyn there, and then probably Yam Yam as well after the swap. Just a non-stop parade of huge characters (Maddy, Carolyn, Claire, Yam Yam) leaving early, all partially due to production twists. Fun? Who needs fun in Survivor?
Did production learn any big lessons from all this? Probably not. You can bet the inheritance advantage will find its way back at some point in 45, and we'll probably still have pointless journeys that keep people away from their already-small tribes right before Tribal. And we'll continue tempting fate, which probably won't save us the next time. But hey, we still have the "monster." Thank all the deities for that.
Yam Yam's superpower: Perception is reality
At Final Tribal Council, Yam Yam wowed the jury with this claim that he could tell when people were lying, because he had established that they had a "twinkle" in their eye when telling the truth about their family and home, and could perceive when that was missing when people were lying. This may be true, or at least Yam Yam may well think it is true (he was 100% wrong when the Tikas were all suspecting each other of having opened the birdcage). But that's actually irrelevant: As far as the jury knew, it was true. It's impossible to disprove, because it's entirely within Yam Yam's head. But it sounds amazing, right?
This is what makes it the perfect kind of thing to claim at Final Tribal (note to future contestants). You sound like a badass superhuman, and nobody can prove you wrong. Of course, it helps considerably that Yam Yam had made this claim during the game itself (to Jaime, at least, presumably more often than that), and that he had an impeccable track record of knowing where the votes were going. It was only alluded to here (when he corrected Heidi to assert that the Tikas were letting Soka/Ratu think they were saving them), but presumably he also made clear that he had been acting when he appeared shocked by Danny's idol play for Frannie, and other such instances where he appeared out of the loop for strategic purposes.
Sidenote: While we're on the Final Tribal/aftershow ... for the fourth straight time, finalists have reasonably suggested there should be a break for the in-game people to sleep/eat/bathe between the vote reveal and the aftershow. The final three are all exhausted, the two non-winners can't possibly process not winning coherently in that time. It's just cruel to force them to sit there for another hour and pretend to be happy. Let them have 24 hours and reconvene the next night. It'll still be fresh and "raw" (not sure why that's desirable), but way more humane. Please listen to your players. Thank you.
Premature 45 commentary: I did like the symmetry of the trailer, where Emily says "let's goooo" (impatient, frustrated) near the start, and it ends soon after Bruce says the same thing in the more traditional, excited "let's goooo!"
Much less plentiful 45 commentary: For almost exactly the same reasons as Ryan Kaiser, I'm also taking a step back from recapping (at least weekly recapping) in 45, especially in the pre-merge (and probably the multi-episode "merge-atory" as well). Like Ryan, I would love to talk about the cast and their gameplay, but there's so little room for the players to really do anything in the new era pre-merge, the only thing that's really possible to talk about is the dumb production decisions that are getting in the way of the cast and game.
And you know what? I've already done that. It feels like I've written almost exactly the same things for all four seasons of the new era. True, by this point the most deeply objectionable twists from 41 have mostly been sanded down, or at least slightly subverted in semi-fun ways, like the second and third journeys becoming a swap and a feast. But they still kept the players siloed and separated in tiny, strategy-resistant tribes, and there are only so many times you can say "let the players play."
The new era pre-merge is a waste of everyone's time - the contestants, everyone working behind the camera, and the audience. It's a tedious barrage of otherwise fun, capable players getting eliminated mostly by a random number generator. It's not that fun, it's definitely not different (from the other new era seasons), and overall, it's just frustrating. Jeff Probst has made very clear that he just doesn't give a shit that the audience feels this way, and will keep doing it until he's fired.
So with that in mind, I won't be wasting several hours a week writing about it. Sorry for you, 45 pre-mergers. I'll still watch, and if there are signs that production will be as hands-off as they thankfully were this season, maybe I'll pick things back up around Ep9 or so. (Although since SurvivorUK should be airing more or less concurrently, and it's not run by Jeff Probst, so maybe I'll just write about that instead.)