Survivor 44

Finale Recap – Down In Flames

What went down in the last episode?

Photo: CBS

For the second season in a row, a juror provided the title of the finale rather than an active player. Matt deemed this season an “Absolute Banger” as Survivor 44 came to a close, and after all is said and done… I feel secure in saying it was certainly not an absolute banger despite some notable high points.

But was it a complete trainwreck that needs to be brushed under the rug with the worst of the worst? Not particularly. But production’s intense hype for this season, while probably justified for whatever they saw happen on the island in real time, unfortunately, didn’t translate to the screen. But let’s dig into how things wrapped up before I get too carried away.

The final five arrive on their new island, and the hunt for idols is on, giving us time to hear from each player about their journeys so far. Heidi’s found an idol and managed alliances; now she can aim for a big move to seal the deal. Lauren’s played a strong social game and won two immunities, so an underdog win is in the cards for her. Yam Yam’s social game was his biggest weapon, allowing him to play the middle and dodge eliminations early in the merge. Carson’s been a triple threat and knows he’s played the best game of the five across the board, but he has to overcome a couple more hurdles, as everyone knows it and plots to get him out. And Carolyn’s been underestimated since the start but emerged as a serious threat by balancing strategy and emotions.

Once again, Carson’s history of puzzle practice comes in handy as he thwarts incoming schemes with an immunity win. Opting to take Yam Yam to the Sanctuary for a nice lunch, he leaves Carolyn at camp with Heidi and Lauren, who use the opportunity to talk game. Lauren knows she’s on the bottom, but with Carson leaving Carolyn out of the reward and leaving Yam Yam exposed, a little whisper in Carolyn’s ear about Yam Yam’s attempt to blindside her might change the status quo.

Meanwhile, Carson and Yam Yam debate the merits of voting Lauren out or potentially blindsiding Carolyn. Yam Yam insists she’s still the biggest threat, but Carson pushes back, figuring one idol play won’t be enough to beat either of them at the end.

The mood is immediately off when the guys return to camp, with Yam Yam worried about a blindside. Carolyn herself is colder than usual, making snarky remarks about putting a Tika on the jury between instances of basically ghosting her island bestie. And as paranoia hits even harder, Lauren’s sudden complacency convinces Yam Yam and Carson that voting for Heidi might be the safest bet. They need Carolyn as a number for their Tika Three, and Lauren might have an idol after how hard she searched, but Heidi’s effectively an NPC (non-playable character) in this situation who offers nothing to them moving forward. The finale could be starting off with a crazy final five vote.

And then we don’t get one. Oops. It’s an obvious Lauren boot with Yam Yam throwing a hinky vote on Heidi just in case Lauren actually found an idol and her vote for Yam Yam was the deciding factor. A great move right out of the Devon Pinto playbook, I must say. As for Lauren, I just wish we got to see more of her game, but she was a victim of the surplus of twists, Yam Yam and Carolyn’s absolute monster edits, and Ratu getting eaten alive shortly after the merge leaving her without long-term storylines. I don’t doubt she was playing a winning game with plenty of merit. Sadly, it landed somewhere on the cutting room floor instead of our screens.

Cut to our final immunity challenge, and it’s yet another repeat of Simmotion. I know production loves this challenge, and it’s certainly more fun to watch than stacking blocks or balancing balls, but using it every other season is just overkill. Regardless of personal feelings towards the challenge, it comes down to Carson vs. Heidi for the win. And because Carson probably couldn’t 3-D print a copy of this contraption to master, Heidi is able to outlast him and win her first necklace along with all the power at the final four.

Carolyn and Yam Yam can make fire with ease and both want a shot at taking Carson out, but Heidi herself wants to make a big move and Underwood it. But like usual, Heidi thinks logically, weighs her options, and will go with what she thinks is best. And poor Carson, after nailing challenge after challenge thanks to his at-home practice, finds out he sucks at making fire on the island. Eaten up by insecurity, he breaks down and fears his million dollars is slipping away, but social king Yam Yam is willing to help him out even if it means making his own chances a little more slim. For as much as Yam Yam and others have talked about his amazing social game, this feels like the first time we’ve seen it in action beyond some funny jokes here and there.

But Yam Yam won’t be worrying about training Carson to destroy him in fire-making because Heidi is going full Underwood and sending herself into the showdown! I wish I could say this moment was as exciting as it appeared to be on the island, but with how understated Heidi was on the show and how small her chance of winning against any Tika member at the end seems to be, it doesn’t quite land as this epic poster moment for the season.

Not to mention there’s the awkward feeling that the jury expects her (and anyone not in the frontrunner position) to give up immunity and risk it all should she want to be listened to at the Final Tribal. Is taking on Carson the right move here, though? Absolutely. Heidi hasn’t played a notable game and can’t really claim any moves as her own, so the risk is worth going against two powerhouse Tikas at the end.

And in a blaze of glory, Heidi topples Gabler’s fire-making record, burning down Carson’s dreams in just over three minutes flat. In the cruelest sense of irony, the hotshot kid who practiced every single challenge he could get his hands on loses the easiest challenge to practice at home, fulfilling a season packed with foreshadowing for this very moment. Had he survived this round and joined his Tikas in the final three, I’d assume he wins being the brains of the Tika operation.

The jury seemed to credit Carson with most of the trio’s moves, he accomplished a bucket list of Survivor goals, and he did it all as the youngest player of the season. Players under 21 get some heat as they usually flame out pre-merge or get dragged to the end like kids on a road trip with their parents, but Carson broke the mold for his archetype and showed young players how it’s done. Not everyone Carson’s age can, will, or should play like Carson. But Carson played a very applicable and repeatable game, so it couldn’t hurt to take notes if you’re about to fly out while under the legal drinking age.

But we have our final three! Carolyn, Heidi, and Yam Yam. Three players with unique games and dynamic cases to make at the end, competing for a lot of up-in-the-air jury votes. And, like the last two seasons, we get some juror takes on these three. Yam Yam played a calculated, perceptive, and versatile game with plenty of great jokes for good measure. Heidi didn’t play a huge game, but she stepped up to dethrone King Carson and could win favor if she explains the rest of her game. And Carolyn, speaking to the very same producer who coached her through her Day 1 interview, played a creative game that weaponized emotions and authenticity to hide her true potential.

At Final Tribal, the opening question is about perceptions. Yam Yam thinks he’s seen as a cheerful, goofy guy but wants to make it clear that he and Carson worked on moves together rather than Carson leading him around vote by vote. Heidi attempts to interrupt and give the Sokas (and therefore herself) credit for dragging the Tikas through the early merge. A valid attempt, but a fruitless one as Yam Yam breaks the bad news: Tika was never loyal to Soka and had their fingers in every pie, so it’s basically the other way around.

Heidi tries to recover by admitting her game is probably perceived as all over the place between her streaks of strategic play and under-the-radar floating, but insists she was making moves every day. Carolyn talks about forming alliances with the two obvious players on Tika, which let her be underestimated as this goofy third wheel and make a deep run against the odds.

When it comes to relationships, Heidi recounts how she was able to scrape by despite Soka’s decimation in the mid-merge. But Yam Yam jumps in to discredit her again, reminding the jury that Tika got Heidi through those votes, though Heidi will make a point that Carson’s going to defend his Tika allies no matter what because their games are so intertwined. And on that note, Yam Yam has to defend his allegiance to Carson, saying he used Carson to gather info from everyone and go on rewards. When asked who she used to get ahead, Heidi names the one asking the question: Danny. She owns up to voting for him, and he actually respects the play.

On the topic of using emotions in the game, Carolyn opens up once more about her history of addiction and how it shaped how she operates. Yam Yam used emotional connection to learn people’s tells and read their body language. And Heidi went in the opposite direction, controlling her emotions like she does in her line of work to play a cerebral game.

The conversation shifts to challenge performance, which doesn’t give Yam Yam and Carolyn much to talk about besides disappointment. Heidi takes the chance to strike, framing herself as the best competitor of the three who would break records as the oldest female winner.

To finish it off, we get some strong cases from all three finalists. Carolyn defends her waste of an idol by saying she trusted Yam Yam, but not the people he swore he had on board that night, and keeping Carson around let her remove Danny from the equation, eliminating a strong player who’d never work with her. Yam Yam had the strongest voting record of the three (thanks for the stats, Carson) and connects it to his strategy of voting out those who came after him, framing his game as an assassin with precise moves. And Heidi talks about losing her allies one after another, forcing her to adapt on the fly and scrape her way to the end by herself no matter how many targets she found on her back.

While the result might seem close based on the editing of this Tribal, the vote is… sadly, another 7-1-0 blowout. But on the bright side, fan-favorite Yam Yam emerges as the Sole Survivor of Season 44 in dominant fashion. It’s not hard to see why his game stood out next to Heidi, whose only notable move was making fire after a string of choices that ranged from safe to confusing, and Carolyn, who was simply overshadowed by Yam Yam in the social department and couldn’t fight for her game as hard as she needed to.

Yam Yam soared above and beyond with his social game, weaponizing relationships to recover from near disaster and play the middle the rest of the way. But the edit also showed some flaws: he could be impulsive and petty, his reads weren’t as clean as he claimed, and he made some blunders here and there. But he finished strong, becoming one of the show’s most entertaining winners ever in a respectable fashion. And ironically, in a season cluttered with twists, idols, and advantages… he never found a single one. It’s such a relief that we end this asterisk-heavy season with an asterisk-free win, something I considered nearly impossible in the game’s early days.

My heart aches, though, seeing Carolyn go home empty-handed after the insanely creative and downright inspirational game she played. I get why she lost, but for the clear main character of the season to get third place with zero votes and sit through the Aftershow eating gross pizza and wondering where it all went wrong… It just feels so unsatisfying. And to some degree, I wonder if production feels the same way, given the stunning coronation-style edit she got. I legitimately can’t think of a no-vote finalist who got this kind of treatment despite their ultimate fate. That doesn’t mean the jurors deserve to be harassed for their choices, though. If you’ve contemplated doing that, knock it off and show Carolyn some love instead!

Yam Yam
Photo: CBS

So with everything said and done, where does this season land? Well, the first two-thirds of the season was certainly some of the most frustrating content we’ve seen in quite a while. The airtime siphoning Bird Cage twist, forced lost votes, busted new advantages, terrible game design, two rounds of Mergatory nonsense, and lopsided editing ranged from minor nuisances to season-derailing nightmares. Even the solid endgame where production backed off and let the players breathe couldn’t quite seal the deal because the rest of the season never built up a solid foundation for a truly satisfying finish.

Thankfully the Tika Three existed as our main characters, especially the wacky duo of Carolyn and Yam Yam, who worked overtime to save this season in its most dire straits. The downside? The rest of the cast never found time to shine with Tika stealing the show, forcing most of them to spend their days reading advantage rules and talking about twists instead of their own games. Though I’m sure with production’s obvious love of this group, we’ll see a few of them back in the future (such as next season, for example), and hopefully on better seasons with less annoying production decisions.

Is Survivor 44 a “bad” season? In many ways, it drops the ball. In fact, I’d say it’s the least impressive of the New Era despite having two of its biggest stars running the show. It doesn’t have the dramatic plot twists of 41, the engaging character-driven narratives of 42, or even a season-defining iconic move like the otherwise middling 43. But it scoops up just enough points to land as simply mediocre overall. Not the reaction production expected nor hoped for, I’m sure, but hopefully, they take some notes about audience reactions and realize the stretch of the season with only a couple idols and a focus on player relationships instead of broken twists (essentially how the show was long ago) worked much better than the rest.

We’ll have to wait and see if this season becomes a template for future mistakes, though, but with Season 45 coming this Fall and the return of Bruce, a whole season of 90-minute episodes, and potentially the return of the Survivor Auction as big selling points, I’m going in somewhat open-minded. But I won’t be shocked if production tries to replicate this season’s chaotic, confusing energy for the next couple of years to disastrous results when they don’t have Carolyn and Yam Yam there to bail them out.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until production finally wises up: just let these fun, lively casts actually play the game! Episodes 5 and 11 were perfect examples of what a great cast can offer when they have room to breathe, even with the New Era growing more stale and repetitive every season. Trust the players you cast to provide the content, and provide it they will.

Written by

Cory Gage

Cory is a writer and student from Texas. He's a die-hard Survivor fanatic who's seen over 50 seasons worldwide, hosted his own season in high school from scratch, and hopes to one day compete on the show himself.

3 responses to “Finale Recap – Down In Flames”

  1. The new era of Survivor has been stale for me from the get-go. The noticeable reduction in days, dumb twists, and too much focus on the strategy aspect.
    – There’s little to no focus on the physicality of Survivor anymore (bring back brutal challenges and bring back physical players!) making challenges boring. I love seeing egomaniacs going head-to-head.
    – The three tribe thing makes it way harder for people to change their fate when they are going to tribal council.
    – Cast some players who aren’t super fans for god’s sake. Seeing people learn on the go is fascinating, and they rely on their own personalities rather than always strategizing and counting numbers. When they all know the game inside and out, it just creates a stale environment where people are just super paranoid all the time. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing Superfans vs. people who have never watched a season of Survivor.

    I’m a Survivor lifer and will watch no matter what.. but I would love to see these changes.

  2. Can you do an article comparing this season to the last Survivor Australia season which was much much better?

  3. Two things i miss the most are #1 flying back to LA for the final vote reveal thats so fun and exciting to watch as the audience is psyched for the reading of the votes !! The way it is now is terrible, so lame and unexciting everyone sitting around eating pizza no applause or audience participation, really? #2 Sitting with the family never missing a season in unison we all say ” CMON IN GUYS “!!!!!!!!! So simple but a GREAT catchphrase!! CMON GUYS bring it back !!!

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