At some point, you have to wonder if production will let this cast play a pure round of Survivor at any point. Between a pre-merge stuffed with advantages to force early Advantage-geddons and a post-merge that won’t let a single day pass without a twist in the immunity challenge, this season certainly has an identity among the New Era quartet. It’s just not a super positive identity. But I suppose this episode is almost a return to form. It’s not a 100% pure round, but given the content we’ve been given until now, I’ll take it!
To kick things off, Yam Yam scraped by last week’s nightmarish Tribal Council with Ratu assuring him he was 100% safe, and Matt was always the target. Meanwhile, Frannie is not happy about that outcome and struggles to see a strong future in the game, with her closest ally and potential partner cast aside by bad luck. And Ratu, having swept through that twisty round unscathed with all their numbers and powers intact, are on top of the world.
But now we get some confirmation about Heidi’s advantage plans from last week’s confusing mess of a play, and it turns out she wanted to make a move that would result in the least amount of burned bridges. I would argue the route she took is one of the worst in that regard, as it potentially offends Tika, Ratu, and her own Sokas in one go, but nobody seems to be holding it against her. Even Yam Yam, who should have every reason in the world to get up and storm off from any strategy talks Heidi proposes, is down to play with her moving forward.
And that’s your setup for the next round. Ratu believes they’re on top and are getting cocky. Heidi wants to form some kind of misfit alliance with the old Tika Tribe. And the Three Stooges of Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Carson will be the swing votes, as expected. It’s the Soka vs. Ratu Civil War we were promised last week and then got brutally robbed of seeing so Matt could beg for his life with a papaya. But better late than never, I suppose.
But it’s Survivor 44, so, of course, there’s a pointless twist to get through before any action can happen. In a return of last season’s paired-up immunity challenge, the final ten have to form five teams of two before the challenge. Brandon and Kane partner up, as do Heidi and Jaime, Yam Yam and Frannie, and Danny and Lauren. And Carson, being super sick after yesterday’s PB&J lunch betrays him, is taken under Carolyn’s wing as her partner.
Half the episode is devoted to this challenge, but I’ll keep it succinct. First up is the claustrophobic nightmare from last season: the twisted, muddy net crawl. Carolyn struggles the entire time as a sickly Carson offers what little support he can muster from the sidelines. They’re easy first outs, and in the plank walking second phase, Danny/Lauren and Brandon/Kane dominate with ease, leading into a four-way endurance challenge for immunity. And it’s Lauren who walks away the victor, spoiling Danny’s plan to blindside her and flush that extra vote.
Back at camp, Yam Yam is once again vulnerable as his proverbial nine lives are running out. But as annoyed as he might be, he won’t be targeted for a change. Instead, the Ratus want to finish the job on the showmance by taking out Frannie, fearing she’ll be a triple threat down the line. But they’re only four people in a tribe of ten (where everyone finally votes, thank god!), so as long as the Tika trio follows their plan, Frannie’s done for. Figuring Yam Yam is the leader of his pack of misfits, they put their eggs in his basket and rely on him to bring Carolyn and Carson with him.
Meanwhile, Heidi, Danny, and Frannie have similar plans. Now is the time to strike against Ratu and even the playing field, and Brandon’s sheer size makes him their primary target. It’s Heidi’s plan to start, but Danny can sweeten the deal by revealing his idol to his allies and promising to play it on Frannie just in case Tika sides against them. But Heidi oversteps the line and tells Yam Yam and Carson about the idol, giving Yam Yam some sneaky second thoughts about how to play this round. With the idol almost guaranteeing Brandon will leave, assuming the Ratus don’t change their votes, he can manipulate things to keep Tika’s options open at the next vote and hide their loyalties for a little longer.
Carson runs to Danny and tells him Heidi leaked his idol plan to the Tikas, giving Danny his own second thoughts about how to proceed. He could play it on Frannie and keep the plan alive, or he could ditch said plan, save himself with it instead, and hope the Ratus and Tikas switched their votes at the last second. But the game is about adapting, and he’s ready to adapt if need be.
But once the votes are cast, Danny maintains faith in the Tikas and plays it for Frannie as intended, knocking Brandon out of the game with four votes against him. The man truly lived and died by the idols this season, but with most of his airtime revolving around advantages and twists, I never felt like we got to know him as a player, unfortunately. His hopes of a Meat Brigade alliance with Danny fell apart off-screen, his rivalry with Kane never went anywhere, and his reportedly strong connection with the oft-invisible Lauren wasn’t explored at all.
But to the surprise of the Soka trio, six votes for Frannie come out of the urn. Yam Yam and Carson voted with the Ratus while Carolyn stuck with the Sokas, a split that seems off, given the episode we just watched. But I think this is a brilliant play by all three Tikas here. Yam Yam maintains his connection to the remaining Ratus, who saved him at the final eleven, keeping his options open despite coming into this merge with hardly an option to speak of. Carson can keep his intentions under the radar as well, positioning himself as one of the Ratus while harvesting crops from the seeds he planted at the swap.
And Carolyn, who’s struggled to step out of Yam Yam’s shadow as of late, gets to take some visible credit for blindsiding Brandon, a move she could wield should she make it to the end. And all three together can hide how close they actually are so nobody suspects them as a solid unit in need of targeting, letting them work both sides yet again.
It’s just a shame we didn’t get to see as much of this clever move planned out on screen because of an overly long (and pointlessly so) immunity challenge. As usual, the cast is delivering when given permission to, but when they actually do find that room to play, it still feels somewhat underwhelming as a TV product because the season totally missed the bus on setting up dynamics and long-term stories early on. So now we’re left with plot threads going nowhere and players who don’t fit anywhere.
I mean, the premise of this episode is the cocky Ratus getting a dose of karma for thinking they’re unbeatable, but Lauren, Kane, and Brandon have been largely irrelevant. Kane even got labeled as “Matt” in his first confessional this week, in case you wondered who the story is really about this season. And to tie into Kane’s D&D allusions since I really missed those this week, it feels less like the party of underdogs rising up to slay the dragon and more like a random NPC getting knocked out by a stray magic spell.
And that just sums up the season as a whole, honestly. It doesn’t have much narrative heft to it. There’s no weight to the few moves being made because our main cast is a small group in a sea of tragically underdeveloped supporting characters. The season has relied so hard on the shock factor of twists up to this point that less effort was made to actually tell the story of what happened out there. And even with this episode trying to present a fun, engaging story in the wake of a twist gauntlet, I fear it could be too little too late unless this endgame is shockingly excellent and returns its focus to what made Survivor compelling television in the first place: the complexities of human relationships when a million bucks is on the line.