Jeff Pitman's Survivor 45 recaps/ analysis
Everybody here has a story
By Jeff Pitman | Published: December 23, 2023
Survivor 45 Episode 13 recap/ analysis

Everybody here has a story

With its action now complete, Survivor 45 stands as easily the best New Era season, and perhaps one of the best-told season stories thus far. We entered the finale with five fully fleshed-out characters, had some idea of how the jury viewed them, and could understand the moves they needed to make to secure the victory. It was clear that Dee stood head-and-shoulders above the rest in overall skill at the game (ironically, as she is actually quite tiny), and the one obvious move everyone else needed to make was to take her out at Final Five. They did not. She won.

That she didn't win unanimously is not a failure on the part of the jury, despite four straight near-unanimous new era wins. Rather, it's an endorsement of the level of competition Dee faced, which we'll get into below. Jury votes *should* be close like this, not routine blowouts. All in all, a thoroughly satisfying ending to a top-tier season. "Everybody here has a story" was a Sifu quote that led off the first trailer for 45 after last season's finale. The strength of this season was that in having 90-minute episodes to work with, Survivor finally had enough room to tell all those stories, and use them to craft a coherent, compelling season-long narrative.

Everybody here has a story

Everybody here has a story

A surprising realization I had entering the finale was that I didn't really care who won. Not because the contestants were unrootable or dull, quite the opposite - they had all visibly been playing the game from the start, and each had a consistent character arc that could conceivably end in their winning the game. It's that no matter which person won, the season would have made sense. There was no last-minute "Ha ha, fooled you! Xander is a zero-vote finalist!" or "The Alli-Gabler surfaces" chicanery going on. This is partly a reflection of the added depth 90-minute episodes have allowed, but it's also thanks in part to excellent casting and storytelling decisions.

From the very early Reba days, Dee stood out as someone who was aware of everything going on around her, as in when Austin and Drew briefly thought they were going to dig up the idol undetected by the rest of their tribe. Way back in Episode 3, Damnbueno put it this way: "Dee's BS meter reminds me of Sandra's BS meter. Sandra's is the best in Survivor history." Accurate!

Dee consistently guided the boot discussions to her desired outcome (except the post-swap one when Sean essentially quit), surrounded herself with people who had her back (Julie and Austin), and held her own in challenges, which together added up to one of the most well-rounded games ever. With the exception of the chaotic final five vote, she was safe almost every time she went to Tribal Council because of these three skills. She was aware of what was going on in the game at all times. Just an elite first-time player, in the mold of Earl Cole or Kim Spradlin. Most importantly, whether it was the 90-minute runtime or more practice at doing this, Survivor's editors found a way to illustrate a female player's winning social-strategic (and physical) game, a task at which they've been notoriously hit-or-miss in seasons past.

Austin, who as we (re-) learned in the finale came to Fiji as one of the alternates for this season, which sparked in him a nothing-to-lose fire for the gameplay. Like Dee, Austin also displayed a wide range of physical and strategic talents well-suited for the game. His one big mistake was the one caused by, in Katurah's words, his "stupid emotional heart." He was aware of *almost* everything in the game, but was either blind to or unable to pull the trigger against one of the biggest threats he faced with respect to winning: Dee. That culminated in his tipping her off to Julie's impending blindside at Final 7, allowing Dee to hijack it and keep "one of my #1s" around, a favor she did not return the next round when it was Drew being targeted. Dee denied her transgression seamlessly in the moment, and of course saved her revelation of the truth for Final Tribal, where it contributed to her victory. (In Austin's exit interviews, he alleges this actually came up near the beginning of Final Tribal, putting him in a huge hole, and he was surprised he managed to claw back the votes he did.)

On paper, Jake had a very Charlie Brown season, making a lot of big runs at flashy strategic moves, only to go flying through the air as the game football was yanked away, repeatedly. But even Jake had a reasonable shot at doing something big in the finale, if only Katurah had trusted him. Had he successfully taken out Dee at Final 5, and somehow eliminated Julie via firemaking, that might have been enough to get close to beating Austin. Unfortunately, his history with Katurah wasn't great, she could tell he was hiding something from her (his plan to play his idol on her), she ultimately didn't trust him, and it just didn't work. Much like his roller-coaster ride through the F5 IC - briefly leading due to his advantage, blowing the lead by forgetting his keys, catching up again on the puzzle, blowing that by overlooking a piece on the final bag ... sigh. Sometimes it just doesn't work out, but Jake was an engaging player, in whom fellow superfans could see something of themselves.

Katurah had an amazingly dark yet ultimately uplifting backstory, came out on top of her feud with Bruce, and had some great one-liners (and no-liner eyeroll reactions) along the way. She probably had the steepest hill to climb in terms of jury votes, but had she made it to the final three alongside Austin and Jake, she had a compelling story of working her way up from the bottom of Belo (and post-swap Lulu) all the way to the end, and as a "surprise" lawyer, could plausibly have talked her way into a fair number of votes. Like Jake, her willingness to keep fighting to the end could have won some respect, had things broken her way just a bit.

Finally, Julie was flagged as the jury's favorite, with multiple players stating that everyone else "loves" her, throughout the post-merge. This was something we were told rather than shown, except perhaps through Dee's eyes, but there's no reason to question that this was indeed the consensus, and that had she reached the final three, it would have become the reality. As another secret lawyer and someone explicitly approaching playing the game as a "second chance" at life, Julie had a great narrative to sell the jury, and like her old Reba tribemates who did reach the finals, brought a strong mix of strategic, social, and physical game assets to the season.

Five distinct players with vastly different stories, all vying for the same prize. Any one of them could have won, and this season's strength is the time it took in building up those possibilities. There was also enough time to toss in a few red herrings along the way, such as Emily's "It's a complete waste of time if you're not Sole Survivor. Excuse me for being honest" quote in the premiere. But there was also room for some foreshadowing, like immediately following Probst's traditional "in the end, only one will remain to claim the million-dollar prize" with a Dee confessional: "I was made for this. I'm gonna play like this is the only chance. And it is the only chance."

She was, and she did.

The new era still could use some fixing

The new era still could use some fixing

While this season absolutely told a great story well, the path to that end still had occasional bumps and missteps. As the new era progresses, the show seems to gradually be realizing that most of the twists they came up with during the COVID hiatus were terrible, and have quietly been removing the worst ones (hourglass, Do or Die) bit by bit, replacing them with old standards that didn't need removing in the first place. This season, we finally had a tribe swap again. It scrambled up the game in exactly the way production seems to think the "mergeatory" morass in the middle episodes is doing (sans any actual evidence to support that hypothesis).

We also saw the return of the auction (again, generally a "meh" for me, but hugely popular with other fans), but the producers found a way to screw that up and make it less fun. (You'll never guess how ... oh, all right, it was with a completely unnecessary twist - imagine that! - the pointless lose-a-vote one, which turned a formerly lively auction into a dull, grim, cash-burning deathrace.) We even saw Katurah criticize forced F4 firemaking, which had already played itself out through all the possible outcomes by Edge of Extinction, but is still here, chugging along predictably, grinding through valuable time in the finale, six seasons later.

If we can just remove the two or three remaining New Era shackles on the gameplay (forced sit-outs for rice is the most gratingly inane, but also the most benign ... half the tribe immune at the merge vote is a close second, along with all the artificial barriers to voting), the combination of 90-minute episodes might actually produce one of the best Survivor seasons ever. We're so close already!

Here's the thing: If you're not doing a live reunion any more, there's no reason for the finale to be three hours long. There are two huge time sinks in it that could easily be jettisoned: The scramble for the F5 IC advantage (6 minutes), and forced F4 fire. The challenge advantage is - eh - fine, but it seems cruel to make starving people race around an island for an advantage that rarely pays off. It was cool to see Jake turn his superfandom into an advantage-securing win, but it was ultimately a waste of time. F4 fire is the bigger problem. From the return to camp after the F4 IC to Katurah's post-fire snuffing took up a ridiculous 20 minutes, with two ad breaks. You could get through that in 10 minutes, maximum, with a simple vote. Who knows, maybe we could finally see a 2-1-1 vote in US Survivor? If you must disfigure the game such that there are TWO ways for someone on the outs to sneak into the finals despite everyone else wanting them out, just have idols expire at final four. Let the players control the outcome, not random wind gusts.

Clearly, there is spectacle and suspense in fire-making. That's why the show likes it, and that's why Dee was dead set against allowing Austin a shot at making one (fire or spectacle) in front of the jury. But it's no longer strategically interesting. We've seen every possible way it can play out. Everyone expects it. It's easy to play around.

Here's a heretical idea: If you need a big, late-season show in front of the jurors, just bring back the F5 or F4 IC being there. "Fallen Comrades" from Africa, or "Will Power" from The Amazon are both good examples and are very low-budget to produce. Sure, people pretending not to be lawyers might cause a problem if one of the Fallen Comrades questions is "how many lawyers were on this season?" but if you just believe in yourselves and in your cast, and dig deep, I'm sure you can push through this and succeed.

Some parts of the new era, however, may be unfixable, at least if we always have three starting tribes. Only four people in the entire new era (89 contestants total) have even cracked double digits in times voted (Cassidy, Karla, and Yam Yam with 10, Ricard with 11). The record for most people voted out in a season is 14, shared by Russell Hantz and Natalie White. In contrast, four people voted 10 times or more in Winners at War alone. With 2/3 of a new era cast safe from Tribal in the first half of the game, that's a nearly impossible number to break. (The solution is obvious, but Probst seems adamant that tiny tribes are for some reason necessary.)

Similarly, if you're a challenge beast who has their eyes on the record for most individual wins in a season ... whew, good luck! The maximum number of individual challenges anyone has competed in from Survivor 41 on is ... 10, by one person (Jonathan Young in 42). Every other season has topped out at 9. The most individual challenge wins in a season: 8, by Terry Deitz in Panama, and that's not even counting his hero challenge win in the premiere. If you want to top him, you have to run the *entire* table. (Terry did it in 12 challenges, some older seasons had as many as 14 total; the median total is 11.) It's not as clear what's driving this, apart from the split-Tribal episode eating one challenge cycle, forced sit-outs taking away appearances, and other cost-cutting measures like combined reward/immunity challenges, a (completely pointless) post-merge journey this season, and so on.

Does number of individual challenges really need fixing? Eh, probably not. Also completely out of reach are the 100+ days of play set by the likes of Sandra, Boston Rob, and Parvati, but that's for multiple reasons: 26-day seasons are a hindrance, sure, but also no non-winning post-Game Changers contestants have even been eligible to play a second season, except Bruce (and he played 1 day his first time). Of all the things wrong with the New Era game, these are the least complaint-worthy. So let's work on letting people vote, instead. Please? After all, it's "the tribe has spoken," not "slightly less than half the tribe has spoken."

Ew, old people smell

Ew, old people smell

A few weeks back, Jeff Probst (who is 62) had an exchange with Dalton Ross where the host gave a massive shrug as to why Survivor doesn't cast very many "older" (read: over 35) people. The best he could come up with was that fewer apply than young people. (Also that older people are more set in their ways, and "There's no layers to them," whatever that means.) So it was pretty funny when, during the aftershow, Probst asked Drew (who is 23) to make a pitch for people to apply. Being Drew, he threw out the bildungsroman concept, which translates basically to: "If you're coming of age - between teen and adult, like me - apply now!" Great work bringing in the more mature players, Probst!

More realistically, though, it's obvious why not many older people apply. It's the same reason not many people of color applied in the early seasons: They aren't ever on our screens. Sure, if you're a man in your mid- to late-40s, and are a former professional athlete from a Big Three US sport who's still in tip-top physical shape, you might see someone resembling yourself every other season or so. There's also usually a solitary "mom" figure like Julie or Heather (Survivor 41) or Janet Carbin, and they sometimes make it far.

But if you're a nerdy superfan in your 50s (guilty), your avatars are basically David Wright (who was in his early 40s) and Yau-Man Chan, for a grand total of two players from the past 45 seasons. Why even bother applying? Especially if you don't particularly care for the New Era game's over-reliance on forced sit-outs and journeys and lost votes and other semi-random obstacles (and no food) to "improve" the game experience. You'll already stand out like a sore thumb from Day One, and will likely be the first boot from your tribe. The lesson is: Never try.

The biggest problem for most people in this age range? Survivor is an easy yes if you're in your early 20s like Drew, and are still in college or grad school. There's really no downside to taking off a couple of months to play on a reality-competition TV show. You're at worst imperiling an internship or entry-level job. Who cares? If you're playing an even-numbered season, chances are that school's already out and you're not even missing classes. In contrast, if you're in your 40s or 50s, you're smack in the middle of your prime earning years, salary-wise. Most likely, your family needs that elevated income, because you probably have a mortgage (or high rent), kids in or about to enter college, you may need to support aging parents or other family members, and you also desperately need to set some cash aside for your own retirement. Even if it would be fulfilling a multi-decade dream by doing so, very few people can realistically afford to blow off their job/career for two-plus months and possibly lose that job in the process, all for a 17-in-18 shot (probably higher, at that age) of also losing at Survivor. If you're a man, this is probably all your own fault for not having the foresight to be a wealthy retired professional athlete at this point in your life. Better luck next lifetime.

Shorter takes

Shorter takes

Teamwork makes the dream work: Austin and Dee collaborated on the counting task in the scramble for the advantage, and Dee initially had the number of coconuts correct (43), but Austin talked her out of it (and she re-counted and confirmed his wrong total), above. (They also both got 18 for the bamboo, when the actual total was 25.)

The Reba Four, cloaked in darkness: One of the mysteries of the season is how the Belo people were so unaware of the (obvious to the audience) closeness of the Reba Four. From their exit interviews, all have told the same story: They met up on the beach (as shown in the past couple of episodes) in the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep. The other contestants were literally in the dark as to their machinations. This is not a new strategy, but it is the first time it's been done by such a large group. (Julie said Bruce actually caught them.) Impressive work, should be copied.

Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes