After Sarah’s blindside, Tika is in shambles. Carolyn’s flipped the script to take control, Josh is grateful for his newfound position of power, and Yam Yam’s in slack-jawed panic mode as he’s firmly on the bottom against two people who openly don’t trust him. But Josh doesn’t feel totally safe either, even after Carolyn teamed up with him for a game-changing vote, so he goes to work at building a second layer of protection: another fake idol.
Showing Yam Yam the note from his swap idol but not the fake idol itself, he does his best to get the target on Carolyn with a point-blank threat: come for me, and you go home. But even with Yam Yam frustrated with Josh’s petty “bitch face” towards him and Josh hardly wanting to speak with the man who put his name down, it’s not long before the walls come down.
Both Yam Yam and Josh are gay men with radically different experiences in coming out, and soon they’re bonded over that sense of community. And with the tension between them falling, the target soon falls on Carolyn as the literal odd woman out heading into the challenge.
Meanwhile, on Ratu, Matthew’s shoulder is flaring up again, leaving him in serious pain over a week after the rock climbing incident nearly took him out on the spot. But as hard to handle as the pain may be, he’s still got a tribe willing to support him, including new arrival Carson who puts Matthew at ease to open up emotionally. And Carson himself is forming inroads all over the place, first with Matthew and now with fellow nerd Kane as the two bond over all things geeky. It’s an impressive display of social skills on Carson’s part, but the same can’t be said for most of Ratu, who barely exist on the season.
Over on Soka, Jaime believes she’s running the tribe as queen of the beach. She’s got two “idols,” and her swap position apparently makes her the most important person there, but as confident as she is, the tribe doesn’t agree. As much as she wants to paint Matt as clueless to the real power dynamic, Frannie’s quick to point out that Jaime hasn’t even realized she shares the beach with a showmance.
But regardless of her misread, Jaime feels comfortable with the good vibes of her new tribe. But you know who feels even better? The people who’ve been there bonding in zen mode the entire time. Danny tells his new Survivor family about breathing techniques he’s learned from his martial arts training, and Matt and Frannie continue their romantic adventure in paradise behind the scenes.
And for Soka, paradise will continue as they win immunity, though not before Ratu can pull off a narrow victory to secure reward in the form of… the right to pick who goes to Advantage Island again. And, of course, that leaves poor Tika as the losers once more.
Now my heart sank when I heard there was another trek in the works as I was certain it would introduce another busted advantage or twist into the season. But in a pleasant surprise, production wisely cut back on the twists and gives Brandon, Danny, and Carolyn a spread of food to enjoy without any games of chance or advantages to find. Ultimately, the twist is… there’s no twist at all! A bit of a double-edged sword, though, as everyone will expect them to return with something, and “We just ate a nice lunch!” sounds like the laziest cover story ever, but we’ll see how that pans out.
But this innocent lunch quickly becomes ground zero for game development as Danny and Brandon openly agree to a bros alliance at the merge, leaving Carolyn hanging as the third wheel (or third turd) with no say in the matter. And to make themselves look even more foolish, they start talking about bringing in others, including Josh, who Carolyn might be voting out later that night. This is the kind of terrible gameplay I live for, and Carolyn’s right there with me as it gives her the drive to take these guys out and prove them wrong for underestimating her, if not totally writing her off so brazenly.
With Carolyn away, Josh and Yam Yam confirm to each other that she’ll be the target, but there’s still the fear of her returning to Tika with something to save her. The men agree to quiz her on what happened and compare notes, but when Carolyn finally gets back, she’s made up her mind: Josh needs to go before the bros form a post-merge Meat Brigade, so Yam Yam needs to get over the salt and rebuild their power duo.
Josh wastes no time in making that decision easier for Yam Yam by flexing his “idol” for them to see. Immediately, both OG Tika’s recognize what’s going on and call him out. Josh stole beads from tree mail and tried to pass off his old idol note a second time. Nice try, but try again, Josh. Even the show isn’t playing coy as Josh gets his flashback segment about his medical struggles, a clear red flag for elimination if there ever was one. The only semblance of suspense they can give us is whether Carolyn’s refusal to tangibly secure Yam Yam’s trust and keep her idol a secret will backfire on her, but before Tika can depart for Tribal… Jeff arrives on the boat with some bad news.
After the last immunity challenge, Matthew is pulled aside for a check-up and learns his shoulder tissue has torn due to his injury. Minor tearing can heal quickly and end the pain in a couple days, but with the pain only getting worse and the game not even half over, they give Matthew a choice. He can stay in the game with an injury that isn’t life-threatening and risk long-term issues… or he can leave the game to get proper medical attention. Putting his own health over the game he loves (and has been playing harder than almost anyone out there), Matthew opts to quit the game and spares Tika from Tribal Council.
— SURVIVOR (@survivorcbs) March 30, 2023
Of all the players on this cast, Matthew was doing by far the most, whether that’s planting fake idols for his own allies to find, weaponizing his Shot in the Dark to hide his loyalty at the first vote, pulling in allies left and right every episode, or going above and beyond in challenges despite his injury. Given the massive game he played, and how tragic it was to see it cut short over a stupid mistake he’d never make again, I think we just found another guaranteed returnee from this cast alongside Bruce.
Hell, I can already see the scene of Matthew walking out on that same beach and giving the rock that cost him the game a giant middle finger. Now it’s just a matter of when that opportunity will present itself and whether he’ll be able to finish what he started: filling out that Survivor bucket list to the very last tick box.
But congratulations, Survivor 44. You finally put out a great episode that didn’t leave me wondering what production was smoking out there, even if it took until the end of the pre-merge to get one. Too bad this episode’s success as a TV product largely hinged upon Matthew quitting and leaving a few minutes available for camp life and tribe dynamics, but I’ll take what I can get at this point in such a poorly designed-season.
And heading into the upcoming “Earn the Merge” merge round, we… aren’t in the best spot to understand much of anything. The season’s been seen primarily through the eyes of anyone who’s set foot on Tika, with Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Carson narrating most of the game until now. Soka is a unified front, with even their stragglers Josh and Jaime hopelessly unaware of how much trouble they’re really in with that group. And Ratu, having just lost their biggest and, dare I say, only developed player this week, enter the next phase of the game as a total question mark tribe as Carson is likely to leave them high and dry for old allies with an outcast Kane in tow.
This pre-merge was an absolute mess, and the fun quickly wore off as awful game design tainted almost all the eliminations. Production’s desire to force an Advantage-geddon every step of the way was frustrating at best and game-ruining at worst, and the amount of wasted airtime spent on fake idols, real idols, and advantages that went nowhere only made it impossible to understand what was actually happening out there on a basic game level.
Bad game design aside, the cast has delivered when they were allowed to. My hope is that production front-loaded the season with trinkets and will let the rest of the game play out with all the pieces in place as they are. But we know there’s probably something else coming, be it another Hourglass tier merge twist, a fifth attempt at making Knowledge is Power a thing, or some late-season nonsense we’re not even privy to.
However, if this cast can take back their own show and outshine the game’s attempts to screw them over with unfair twists at every turn, maybe the season can redeem itself and live up to Probst’s record-setting hype after all.