After the exhilarating heights reached in last week's miraculous moment of Kaleb saving himself with a Shot in the Dark, Episode 7 of Survivor 45 was darker, more somber, as it became clear this big moment was not going to pay off into a longer-term run for Kaleb. Part of the reason for that is that we didn't have a full merge vote yet, but instead are still fumbling around through artificial barriers brought on by rock draws.
Then again, realistically, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Kaleb escapes his next Tribal unscathed. Maybe if he had ended up with Emily, Jake, Katurah, Kendra, Bruce, and say ... Drew or something, they might have ended up with a Bruce boot, instead ... but then Bruce plays his idol, votes for Kaleb, and Kaleb is gone anyway. Regardless, it did not end up like that. "So close," though.
It was also somber because of a bizarre decision on production's part to strictly adhere to recent jury/non-jury rules, which left the impression they were arbitrarily punishing the person booted from the team that didn't also win reward, by making that person the final non-juror ... even though the episode's two bootees would exit the game mere minutes/hours apart.
Even worse, that fate would be decided by a rock draw, plus one (random) person on the other team outlasting everyone on theirs. The only way for a player to 100% ensure they made the jury was to win "Get a Grip," a challenge that - while an "oldie but goodie" in the always accurate opinion of Bruce — is notoriously *not* an even playing field for all body types. "Brutal game."
This was probably just clumsy execution (someone in production probably realized on the morning of Day 14: "Oh shit, we still need one more non-juror, and there's a double boot today!") spackled over with the most menacing presentation possible. Ever since the mid-20s seasons, Survivor usually goes with a 10-person jury/Final Three format on 20-player seasons, and an 8-person jury/Final Three on 18-player seasons. But that's not some immutable law (*cough* Edge of Extinction seasons *cough*). Furthermore, S21: Nicaragua (20 people) and S22: Redemption Island through S24: One World (all casts of 18) all had nine-person juries with final threes. Those seasons were fine! (-ish!)
So in that context, it just seems cruel to make everyone go through all the "earn the merge" hoopla, finally get merge buffs, then announce the next day: "Oh, by the way ... you haven't earned the jury."
I get it, Survivor producers want these combinations (10/3 and 8/3) because they want to avoid three-way ties. (In related news, let us ponder perhaps the greatest Cochran tweet of all time):
In S23 we had a final 3 with a 9-person jury. On the van ride to Final Tribal, Ozzy lobbied for us to coordinate votes and force a three-way tie, just to find out what happens— John Cochran (@JohnMCochran) November 9, 2023
But as we know, this sort of "we have to avoid a three-way tie" thinking is absolutely ridiculous, because final threes almost always have a zero-vote finalist. Not to mention that there's been exactly one tie in the first 44 seasons, and it happened because an even-numbered jury (Ghost Island) split evenly between two finalists in a final three. Which is going to happen with an even-numbered jury when one person in the final three invariably receives no jury votes!
Even in the event production has no idea what to do in the case of a three-way tie: The chances of a three-way tie are even more remote than the 1-in-44 track record for two-way ties. (And do we even need to mention every New Era season so far has ended in a 7-1-0 victory margin?) If they're that worried about ties: Stop having final threes, then! Make every season a final two, and have an odd-numbered jury. Problem solved!
Or ... I dunno, maybe just let everyone on the merge tribe be on the jury? It seems fair, it seems decent. Maybe trust the numbers and just be nice for a change?
Your fate is determined by drawing rocks
As the rock draw for the IC started, Katurah had a confessional with the quote above, correctly pointing out the pointlessness of the system. For the last two episodes, it hasn't been so much "Outwit - Outplay - Outlast" ... it's been Outdraw. Luck has always been a factor in successful Survivor games, but it shouldn't be the sole deciding factor.
Or as Kellie also accurately said at Tribal Council: "It's terrifying, Jeff. All through this 'merge' portion of the game, we've been put into random groups, literally by random rock draw. [...Does that blur tribal lines?] It's so hard to say at this point because we haven't actually had an opportunity where every single person is on the table." (Preach!)
These complaints ended up being 100% accurate. While the six-person teams for immunity indeed randomly mixed people together and created new small groups, which should theoretically have provided new opportunities for interesting strategy (like Jake trying to force a rock draw), in the end the decision on both teams ended up being what the majority of three people from the same original tribe wanted. That's not really changing the game, it's just speedrunning it.
On the blue team, Kellie had to go to great effort to wrangle Bruce and Kendra into working together - just this once! - but she ended up with the outcome that worked best for her (and "for Belo"): She kept Bruce (who sees her as his #1 ally) in the game through to the jury phase, where he can theoretically eventually vote for her to win. In doing so, she also removed a number from Reba. (Not really, that would have been Drew. But close enough.)
Over on Dee's red team, the same thing happened. Jake made a failed attempt at a majority-toppling coup, as he targeted Julie, viewing her as the Dee-enabling leg of the Reba triarchy on that team (Dee, Julie, Austin). In the end, Katurah sensibly declined to go to rocks for this plan, because its success was entirely dependent on Jake having a good read on Austin's willingness to crumble on the revote. Her only real gauge for how accurate Jake's reads were that he thought she would be fine doing this *right after* learning that she was on the absolute bottom of the Belo pecking order, even below Kaleb, and that the others had conspired to help Bruce find the Lulu idol (i.e. against her). Yeah, who *wouldn't* be willing to go to rocks for people who up until the very minute they needed your vote had been helping your biggest nemesis? Especially when that rock draw has a 1-in-3 shot of sending you out of the game?
To sum up: in the end, Dee and the Rebas wanted to take Kaleb out; Dee got to take Kaleb out. The (rock-drawn) majority rules, just like it did on the blue team. A disappointing outcome for the audience, even if it made perfect sense for those voting. Kaleb would have beaten any of them if he'd somehow reached the finals. Those chances were remote, since he didn't have any solid allies besides Jake and Emily and maybe Katurah, but as we've just seen, two of those allies weren't really working together, and Emily admitted she was okay with letting Kaleb go. So barring running the rest of the individual immunity table, Kaleb was probably always going out around this spot. (And while that individual immunity table only has seven more settings, the only challenge legs on which Kaleb really outshone everyone in the tribal phase were shooting baskets and tossing rings. It's safe to predict that all seven of those ICs are not going to be exclusively based on those two activities.)
With that in mind, both of these boots felt like holdover plans from the pre-merge, probably because they were. They were safe options that didn't really ruffle any feathers: Lest we forget, Kaleb had just received 11 votes against him the night before.
I don't think safe, tribal-line votes are what production was hoping for with this "twist". It's hard to even call it a twist anymore, because it's one that's been in place most seasons since Ghost Island, just usually at Final 10. Honestly, it hasn't really ever made much of an impact. If the goal is to shake up alliances, stir up game opportunities, create chaos, it's failed at that almost every time. There have been mild shocks, like James getting blindsided in 43, but for the most part, it's felt like a fast-forward button.
In the past, this has always been at Final 10, and at least in some seasons, cross-tribal alliances have formed by then. Having it literally the day after the merge tribe has formed, however, is unlikely to produce that result. Having six people per team instead of five is more interesting. But in the end, it was too soon. Some of these people have barely had a chance to talk to each other (including Kendra and Bruce!). So moving the big "twist" to F12, while well-intentioned, did not work.
But you know what might have helped? The same thing that would have improved "earn the merge" last week: Do a schoolyard pick for teams, rather than a rock draw. (Sorry Probst, we know you love your precious rock draws.)
With a pick'em, the strategic decision-making is way more complex: Do you want all your allies on one team, plus an easy boot? Or do you want your alliance to divide and conquer on both teams? Do you want to pick people you know will perform less well than you on "Get a Grip"? People built like Kellie and Dee (small, strong) historically do great on this, whereas people built like Sifu or Austin do not. (Drew really outperformed expectations here.) And if it's a chain pick, where each person picked then picks the next one, do those people take suggestions, or do they just pick whoever they want? Do big guys like Austin end up being last picked? That could be fun!
But as always, what do I know? I just watch the show.
Despite everything, some emerging gameplay
Even with all the unnecessary roadblocks (split teams), we're finally getting to the portion of the game where we're starting to have a decent view of various people's gameplay. It's still very early, but here are some of the remaining standouts:
Dee: She made the logical choice in targeting Kaleb. Her "Boy, bye!" confessional was her first one that maybe sounded a bit arrogant, which felt out of character relative to her edit so far. But that can be chalked up to a combination of the euphoric feeling of invulnerability that comes from winning individual immunity (which Tyson Apostol delicately termed "immunity balls") and the giddy caloric rush from the taco feast. She probably could have fired a flashier shot in the upcoming Belo-Reba war by taking out Katurah or Jake instead, but Kaleb was the greater overall threat.
Austin: There are worrying things about Austin's confessionals (he sees his idol as making him powerful), but on balance, he's made good decisions and has his head squarely in the game. He cautioned Dee about reducing her threat level here. He told Emily he didn't have any interest in targeting Kellie so soon (over the amulets), because that would make his own threat level skyrocket. (I guess because the amulets are widely known now? We weren't shown anyone but the Rebas talking about it). He's also an obvious challenge threat, and dropped early in "Get a Grip". Not sure how he'll avoid being a target in the near term if the women's alliance in the preview ever happens (it's in the preview, therefore it won't). But he's playing one of the best games a player who's perceived as "physical" could hope for.
Kellie: There wasn't a ton of Kellie game talk in the pre-merge, beyond her penchant for playing the middle (with the now-departed Brando). That's probably because she never had to vote until last week, and even then it was on a unanimous vote that was promptly Shot down. So this week was her first real opportunity to be strategic, and she absolutely crushed it. From the felt-like-foreshadowing-for-the-finals "I love to see it come down to two bad-ass women" necklace speech, to sitting Bruce and Kendra down individually and getting them to agree to not vote for each other just yet, Kellie was the star of the episode. She calmed the chaos and got her key alliance members to do exactly what she wanted (alongside Emily and Drew). That's huge, and it made sense to target Sifu, for her stated reason that his jury vote was unpredictable. (As with Dee's choice, targeting a more-connected person from the other tribe like Drew would have been a bigger move, but you don't start a war without at least checking in with the rest of your troops first, which can't be done when they're at another camp.)
Kendra and Katurah: Katurah was at the bottom of post-swap Lulu, Kendra the bottom of post-swap Belo. There's nowhere to go but up from there, so it'll be interesting how each navigates the game going forward. They were (shown as) the closest two Belo women to each other on original Belo, but we haven't really seen them reconnect since the merge, and the looming prospect of a women's alliance seems like a natural outgrowth of their September Birthdays alliance from the premiere. Neither really feels like the season's winner from their edit so far, but they've both had interesting journeys to this point, and who knows what the future holds? (Kendra thinks the stars do. We shall see.)
Jake: His Hail Mary to save Kaleb was obviously a bit of a longshot. Forced tie votes always are. For the reasons discussed above (last-minute informing Katurah that she was out of the loop on Bruce's idol), it was on even flimsier ground. That wasn't his idea though, it was Kaleb's, and it was necessary because Kaleb had impulsively retaliated against Bruce last week by telling the Reba men about Bruce's idol. Everything of course went up in flames, but at least Jake took a swing. Belo is now outnumbered at Final 10, with the Reba Four + Emily firmly together, Katurah looking for greener pastures, and the Belos deeply fractured, unless Kellie can pull them all back together again. The only other option is for someone to break up the Rebas (Drew keeps telling us they can't). So things look grim for Jake going forward. But he'll keep swinging, which is a plus.
Drew: Drew seems like he might be here as a bit of an afterthought, but don't underestimate him. He looked silly for having left his bag back at camp during the IC, cutting himself off from his Safety Without Power advantage. But he worked overtime in being an agreeable pawn to the Belos and their superior numbers, and the Sifu blindside was even his suggestion. Great on-the-spot adjustment. Despite his odd combination of Rodger Bingham-esque "straight-shooter"-ing and superfandom, it's not out of the question Drew could win, even if it's not clear that he's really done anything strategically so far. We've had a lot of confessionals from Drew all season long about how the Reba four are the most powerful group, about how he's running the show, and so on. The latter has felt especially jarring, since it looks like it's actually Austin and Dee running Reba, but the last guy whose edit felt this artificially inflated and detached from the game's reality was Gabler's, and we all know that ended up.
Bruce and fire
The blue team got rid of one wildcard by removing Sifu right before the jury phase officially started, but there's still one more who's dancing around, starting fires right and left: Bruce.
Bruce has now been shown starting the first fire at Belo, the first fire at post-swap Lulu, and now the first fire at Dakuwaqa, the merge tribe (even though the latter was clearly shown out of sequence, since the immunity necklace is behind him, but it was supposed to be before the IC). What could it all mean?
The obvious conclusion is he's probably one of the people doing F4 firemaking, which is sad if the lamest twist of all gets all this foreshadowing ... unless it's Bruce vs. Katurah, which would be really fun.
(Unless, again, that Bruce making all these fires means he wins, because that would mean Katurah loses, which would be a sad way to end that rivalry. Although that could produce the two bad-ass women at the end, taking all the jury votes, just as Kellie predicted. Kellie > Emily > Bruce? Eh, that's enough wishcasting for today.)
Idol history fact-check
In planning the Kaleb boot, Dee asked her Reba alliance-mates: "has there ever been a second elimination where everybody voted for one person [who saved themself with an idol] and then they were gone the next?" To which Julie definitively answered "No!"
That appears to be technically true, but ended up not actually being true here (Sifu was booted next), and Kaleb's boot ended up reproducing one of the most common patterns: The person who saved themself is usually booted two (or three) votes later. Julie's claim is technically true only because unanimous votes almost never happen, precisely because Survivor players are (rightly) deathly afraid of idol plays. But it's also not true in the sense of "nobody has ever saved themself with an idol, then been voted out the next round" - That's been done four times already! With 33 people saved from majority votes by idols (and another 9 who avoided ties) in US Survivor history, that shouldn't be a huge surprise. But still: Don't believe everything you hear on TV, kids.
The first person game-saving idol play was Yau-Man in Fiji: He saved himself, idoling out Stacy at F6, then was blindsided at F4 (back in the ancient days when people voted at F4, sigh). The next three (almost) made the finals (Amanda in FvF, Hantz in Samoa, Jerri via Parvati in HvH). Penner saved himself in Philippines at the merge, then lasted four more rounds. Abi avoided a tie, lasted three more rounds.
That brings us to a Tribal that almost refutes Julie: The famous Three Amigos Tribal of Caramoan, where Reynold was already immune, then Malcolm played two idols, one for himself, and one for Eddie, idoling out Phillip Sheppard. Malcolm was booted the very next round. Technically, "all" the votes weren't for him, since it was a split vote between him and Eddie (almost every vote this season was split). But he did save himself, then was voted out the next round.
San Juan del Sur had three people saved by idols: Keith and Jon both saved themselves on the vote that ironically idoled out poor Wes. Keith lasted five more votes, Jon three. Natalie also played an idol that saved Jaclyn (idoling out Baylor) at F5, and Jaclyn made the finals after one more vote.
Worlds Apart was awash in idolings, as two finalists (Mike and Carolyn) saved themselves at back-to-back Tribals (F7/F6), but made it to the end. Jenn saved herself at the merge vote (savage), but was gone three votes later.
That brings us to Cambodia, which also contradicts the spirit of Julie's claim: Jeremy saved Stephen at F10 (the Ciera boot), then Stephen was booted anyway in the next round. Everyone remembers the "Wentworth, does not count" x9 Savage blindside, and the F6 Jeremy/Kelley dual idol play/zero vote scenario. Obviously, neither went out the next round, but Kelley did on the second vote after F6 (again, a vote at F4, how quaint).
David Wright saved Jessica Lewis pre-merge with an idol in MvGX, obviously she went further. But the very next season has another very famous example that contradicts the spirit of Julie's claim: Advantagegeddon. There, Tai played idols for himself and Aubry, and Cirie joined the jury despite nobody voting against her, simply because she was the only person not immune. Aubry and Tai were the next two people voted out! Sure, technically "all" the votes weren't against them, but both had their names written down, and would have gone instead of Cirie if not for Tai's idols.
Ben Driebergen saved himself with idols three times in HvHvH, including once when he inexplicably received all six votes, but then equally inexplicably was not voted against (fear of another idol) at the very next Tribal (Ashley boot), then saved himself with idols again at the remaining two votes (after which forced F4 fire saved him).
Michael Yerger saved himself in Ghost Island, idoling out Libby (oops), then was voted out three rounds later. But the next season (David vs. Goliath) featured another example that refutes the spirit of Julie claim: Christian saved himself (idoling out Gabby, oops) at F8, only to be voted out himself the very next round. Again, the remaining votes were split, but that's because they (almost) always are. Maybe Julie just doesn't remember any examples where nerdy fans saved themselves.
This brings us to the vote that comes closest to proving Julie wrong: in Island of the Idols, Karishma saved herself, voiding a whopping 7 (out of 9) votes against. As always, there was a single safety vote (Dan f***ing Spilo, who ruins everything, against Elizabeth), which forced a tie with Karishma's target, Janet, and Elizabeth was out unanimously on the revote. Karishma was booted the very next round. This was about as close to the scenario Julie envisioned that you can come.
There's another next-rounder the next season, Winners at War, where old mate Ben Driebergen saves himself at F6 (idoling out his closest ally, Denise), then is voted out the next round at F5. (Natalie Anderson also saved herself with an idol at that same F6 Tribal, but eventually made the finals.)
Finally, there have been very few people saved by idols in the new era, but 44 had a couple, only one of which this cast would have seen before playing. Brandon Cottom saved himself in the premiere, and was voted out at his third Tribal after that, while Danny saved Frannie at F10, only for her to be booted anyway two votes later, at F8.
All in all, Julie's claim was accurate in the narrowest possible sense. Kaleb's self-save was indeed an impressive achievement. (Even if Kelley Wentworth somewhat dismisses it as "lucky" - Kaleb had to do the same reading of the room all the times he didn't play his Shot, so it was a good read plus luck, not a good read plus a *sure thing* as one would see from an idol.) But big splashy idol plays are often just postponing the inevitable, not a full reprieve.
Rally 'round the flag: - It's sad that even with 90 minutes, there wasn't enough time to explain the merge tribe name, nor show the painting of the flag. This at least was shown as a secret scene on EW.com, though. The name was Kellie's idea, and Dakuwaqa is a shark deity from Fijian folklore. Fun tidbits: (1) Dee's name takes up almost as much real estate as the tribe name, (2) Emily and Kaleb both signed in Lulu yellow, whereas Jake was the only other person to use their original tribe colors.
Chekhov's extra-long toe - Old Reba's discussion of Dee's extra-long big toe was one of the weirder scenes from the pre-merge, but its narrative service has now been completed, as her toe gave her a leg up in "Get a Grip". The gun has been fired. Hopefully Dee's around a little longer, but there's now no real plot armor arguing that she will be.
Drew and Basile - The other out-of-place storyline from the pre-merge that was introduced then immediately disappeared was Drew's odd introduction of himself as two people, Drew and Basile (his first and last name, which is also how he signed the flag), who have different context-dependent personalities. (Drew was the poetry-writing one.) This argues that unlike Dee, Drew has time left in the game (or maybe Basile does), as does the fact that his advantage was mentioned at a time when he didn't really need it. Again, an oversized presence relative to actual results so far. Let's see where this goes.