Episode 7 of Survivor 44 showcased both the untapped potential this cast has to play an exciting game, and the production-dictated shackles that have restricted that gameplay, as the show rolled out another pair of unwanted and excessive twists that were both frustrating and disappointing.
It all started off so well, though! The opening minutes (checking back, it was only 5:45 of runtime, it felt so rich and satisfying that it seemed longer) hit all the right notes. We saw Yam Yam charming the tribe to try to re-integrate himself after drawing votes during the Josh boot. We saw Danny hatch a plan to blindside Lauren, and take her extra vote out of the game. We saw Brandon filling Matt and Yam Yam about how the Ratu birdcage idol had worked - with Matt finally getting confirmation that his idol was probably fake, and correctly deducing that Danny must have the real one. To top that all off, we saw the long-awaited League of Nerds alliance finally popping into existence, as Matt, Frannie, Kane, and Carson collectively plotted to blindside Danny, since he was already convinced that everyone was on board with his Lauren plan.
All of this, just in the first five minutes! And with an IC and Tribal coming that same day, things finally seemed to be starting to click for this season. We had a voting bloc spanning all three original tribes. We had schemes on top of schemes. This is what Survivor is supposed to be!
And then that forward momentum came to a screeching halt, all the exciting, contestant-generated scheming went up in flames, and the rest of the episode was more or less a dumpster fire. Just cheesy, game-breaking production decision after cheesy, game-breaking production decision all the way down.
No necklace for you!
"Hold up bro," Jeff Probst intoned to the players (not actually, but it was implied), "I'd like to make a big move myself here."
And so it came to pass that production decided that Final 11 was the perfect time to have an individual immunity challenge in which two teams of five compete for reward, and two people win immunity. But also that one person (Carson) had to sit out, for some reason.
This was a potentially game-breaking choice. For the first time in the show's history (and hopefully the last), production arbitrarily decided they could block a player from competing in an individual immunity challenge. As Ryan Kaiser said this week, "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." Imagine if Carson had in fact guessed wrong, then been voted out? That's a lawsuit waiting to happen.
It's also a choice that goes against just about every principle the show has previously held. Every player should have a chance to save themself by winning immunity in the individual phase of the game, no matter what. Despite Brandon's claims to the contrary (while wearing an immunity necklace), sometimes good players can't necessarily work their way out of any situation by talking to the right people. That's why individual immunity exists. It should always be available as a path forward.
Not to mention there was already a precedent for letting Carson compete in this exact scenario! In Island of the Idols, with 11 people left, there was also a split/teams RC/IC ("Will It Go Round?" where players spin a ball around a vertical circular track) where the winners (Elaine and Noura) received individual immunity, and the overall longest-lasting team (not Noura's) won a food reward. There, they simply had a 5-6 split between the teams. The team with six people even lost! (Because Noura forgot to keep going after she "won" vs. Dean.)
That's where we are now: the post-merge of Island of the Idols somehow stands out as an example of the show doing something better than it is currently.
Sad to say, next week's immunity challenge *also* appears to pointlessly chip away at the concept of individual immunity challenges. It's a rehash of the format of the IC Gabler won in 43, where it's a multi-stage elimination challenge, and the opening stage(s) is done in pairs. This was a really bad idea at the time, and it still is now. Like Carson's forced sit-out, it upends the concept that a player should have the opportunity to save themself by winning immunity. That's not possible when a rock draw pairs you with someone who has no chance of winning, or worse yet, someone who actively works against you advancing. It's not fair, and it's definitely not in the spirit of a determined Rudy Boesch standing on a stump, holding onto a post for four hours, or a Christian Hubicki standing in an uncomfortable, crucifixion-like position, talking about reubens for hours on end.
All of these challenge designs are perfectly fine for a reward challenge, because honestly, who cares if player X can't get some PB&J? But individual immunity is supposed to be held to a higher level of scrutiny for fairness reasons, and exempt from this kind of capricious production interference. How is it possible that not one person in Survivor's entire creative team noticed or pointed out that someone should not be forced to sit out a chance at individual immunity? It's season 44, how could they all screw up something this basic at this point?
I hate that I'm a broken record on this, but: Make better choices, Survivor.
The half-Tribal: Things get worse
For whatever reason, production just doesn't seem to understand (or perhaps care) that when already-stressed players are put in situations where everything seems completely random and they have no control, they'll revert to doing more safe, conservative things, like sticking with their original tribemates. Matt said this exact thing in his exit interview with Rob Cesternino, and that's exactly what happened this episode. So not only did production choices take away the organic strategizing that was going on, by doing so, they ensured they'd end up with a result that was inferior to what otherwise would have happened. It's certainly easier narratively when the people with the color-matched clothes stick together, but it's also far less interesting for the audience.
There is obviously precedent for the half-Tribal format. We've had two 5-person Tribals at Final 10 just about every season going back to Ghost Island. This is just doing that one cycle sooner (but with only one Tribal, due to the two medevacs). There's nothing inherently wrong with splitting a large merge tribe into randomly-selected groups of people for one round like this. It's just less interesting when (1) again, it's been done every one of the last four seasons, and most of the five before that, and (2) we still haven't had a normal post-merge vote with all but one or two of people eligible to be voted against.
Speaking of precedent, though, this was really a revision of the Survivor: Fiji merge twist, where a randomly-divided group of five (dominated, as expected, by original Motos) voted along original tribal lines to remove Michelle Yi. That twist was widely hated at the time. This version? Almost universally despised by fans. Good work improving that percentage, Survivor! Here, it was the same scenario as Fiji, except rather than being stuck back at camp during Tribal, the winning team was forced to watch helplessly as the original Ratus used their three (or four) votes to overpower the two people the winning group wanted to save. So in effect, it was the Fiji twist all over again, just more painful for everyone involved.
No doubt production saw the tears of Frannie, Carolyn, and Matt as *drama* and therefore a brilliant decision on their part. But again, it was drama that came at the expense of the players' agency in the game. There was no reason to do this, except that production wanted to throw a wrench in the contestants' plans, keep them off balance. But in doing do, production directly affected the balance of power: There had been an even split between the two more successful pre-merge tribes, with four Sokas and four Ratus left in the game. Now it's a 4-3 Ratu advantage.
Going back to the first 5 minutes, this numerical outcome probably would also have happened if production had simply let the game play out as the players intended, with Matt leading a Danny blindside. The difference would have been significant, though: That scheme involved players from all three original tribes, and would have marked the true beginning of the individual/non-tribal-lines game. Instead, the result amplified those original tribe divisions, and re-framed the post-merge as a Ratu-vs-Soka thing. That's far less interesting, even if it does provide some short-term cover for people like Carolyn, Yam Yam, and Carson.
Taking away votes stifles gameplay, actually
This shouldn't really be breaking news, since Matt mentioned this during the season (prior to the Josh vote), and again in his exit interviews, but Matt's reaction to losing his ability to vote (twice) was to try to guide the decision-making towards lopsided, simple majority votes, presumably so that nobody would notice the vote totals didn't add up. Also, realistically there was no way for him push for elaborate vote-split plans, because he had no way to contribute to a tight margin. So the obvious take-home message here is: Players losing their vote(s) encourages them to make the game less exciting, not more.
Do we think production heard that message? That seems pretty unlikely. Since Matt's story the whole season was "Oh no, I don't have a vote" (until it morphed into "Yay, I can finally vote, but oh no, I don't have my bag and I'm also hopelessly outnumbered, so my vote doesn't really matter anyway"), it seems the inherent drama in that is exactly what the show was hoping for. Someone being screwed over by a production decision for half the season is a better outcome in the eyes of the producers than players coming up with interesting voting schemes on their own.
That's doubly disappointing, because remember, Matt didn't have any choice in losing his first vote, he had to put his hand in the bag on the Ep1 journey, and he got screwed over. As a direct result of that draw, we lost one of the more entertaining characters on Soka (Claire) way too early, because she, Frannie, and Matt only had two votes between them. Had Matt been able to vote, it would have been a 3-3 split, and then maybe Heidi goes with them, creating a 4-2 majority. But nope, Heidi went the safe route, and Frannie had to as well. Obviously, Matt's decision to risk his second vote was his own fault, but given a chance to make up for already losing (and the sunk cost fallacy), what competitive person isn't going to take a 50-50 shot at salvaging something good out of an already bad situation?
An underwhelming advantage
Like Matt's chances in the game, Heidi's "advantage" also sputtered and died at Tribal. It was more of a Beware Advantage without the helpful warning on the packaging, as in: it was something that *might* be useful, but also had a significant downside, none of which the feast-goers were told about before racing off into the woods to find keys. The main problem is that every aspect of this advantage was public, from the key hunt to Heidi having to stand up at Tribal and announce both the advantage and her decision on how to play it.
This might have been an interesting advantage if it had been (more) private. Say it had just been a regular Tribal, and Heidi could secretly commandeer one other player's vote. Logistically, she would just have to declare she's playing it prior to Tribal (in private, like Cody with his IC winner-choosing advantage last season), and Probst could even announce one player *will* have their vote blocked before voting starts. When it's time to vote, Heidi goes first. She has an extra parchment, announces (in the booth) the player she's blocking, Heidi then votes twice, and when that player has their turn, they get a note informing them of their fate, and go sit back down.
That's not what happened this time, obviously, probably because this was all just an attempt to rework the old Steal-a-Vote into something that could be used when still-active contestants are observing someone else's Tribal. In the actual execution here, because the full workings and outcome of the advantage were publicly announced ahead of the vote, the Ratu three just voted around it, so it ended up being pointless, except perhaps in shifting the ire of the Ratus (and Yam Yam, and probably Carolyn) in Heidi's direction.
That said, there are scenarios where it might have worked: say if Heidi makes either Brandon or Jaime vote for Lauren. Matt and Yam Yam then probably join together and also vote Lauren (Matt said so in his exit interviews, at least). That creates at worst a 3-3 tie, and to get there Lauren has to play her extra vote, otherwise she's out, 3-2. On the revote, Lauren is one of the tied players, so she can't use either of her votes. Whoever she voted for (Matt or Yam Yam) also can't vote. If Heidi's forced vote carries over, then it's 2-1 vs. Lauren, and both Matt and Yam Yam are safe, as Heidi originally said she wanted when she found the advantage. Maybe she was unwilling to risk Lauren being voted out? If so, her choice makes sense. Otherwise, oh well.
Dude, where's my die: One of the dumbest parts of the episode was that - again, for "reasons" - Matt was unable to access his bag and use his Shot in the Dark. You know, the Shot in the Dark, the thing that's supposed to provide a feeble glimmer of almost-hope to someone who's hopelessly outnumbered? It probably wouldn't have worked, but why does he *need* the stupid die to actually use his Shot?! The scrolls are just in a bag in the voting booth. He could just take one. Why does everything in this game have to have such labyrinthine rules?
In addition, in a game overflowing with advantages and idols, why was the losing team sent back to a dead camp that didn't have their stuff? If someone had hidden their (real) idol back at camp, they would also have been screwed here. The winning team was immune, and did not need their bags in any way. Also, setting up the key hunt in the camp must have taken some time (during the IC). Why not just do that at one the two old camps? Or at the Sanctuary? Why did it have to be at Va Va/Ratu camp?
This was probably done because that's the way it's always, or at least usually, done - the losing team has to suffer at a ghost camp, while the winning team gets reward plus the comforts of home. But why did nobody on production think this through? Shouldn't they want people to play their idols? Production had to bring everyone's torches to them. Why not Matt's bag? (Production: "Oh no, I'm not making two trips.")
I'm (actually) not a bad sportsmanship: One thing that is clear about this cast, who are still in a holding pattern waiting to start playing the game after the first seven episodes: They're all gamely rolling with the asinine punches production keeps throwing their way. Nobody embodies that spirit more than Matt, who was just steamrolled by stupid twist after stupid twist this season, not being able to vote until his boot episode, briefly duped by a production-provided dud idol (that he at least figured out before he left), not having his bag at Tribal, and never being able to vote with Frannie even once, despite spending the entire first seven episodes on the same tribe as her and going to Tribal three times. Even though he left the game teary-eyed, he still seems chipper about the experience. Treat your players with more respect, Survivor. They've more than earned it.