“Great players make great seasons, and this group has delivered every day,” Jeff Probst said at the start of the Survivor 44 finale.
While I’m not always on the same page as Jeff Probst about Survivor these days, I agree with him 100 percent on that. This has been a strong season, easily the best of the four in this alleged new era, and a considerable part of that has been the cast.
Last spring, though, was a joy, too, ending with one of the biggest characters winning $1 million, which seemed like an almost inevitable outcome for Survivor 44, too, with the way Carolyn has been edited since day one.
My one hope for the finale was that Carolyn, Carson, and Yam Yam—who’d stayed together all season long, despite twists and temptations—would make the final three.
They’re certainly an iconic Survivor alliance, each with their own strengths, and just so great as individuals, as players, and as friends.
For me, that would be the strongest final three in memory. The finale gave us even more depth to their season-long connection with each other, in various combinations, and also more opportunity for them to be split apart.
The start of the episode gave us moments that would reverberate throughout the finale.
Carolyn told us, “I’m emotional but it helps: it helps with connecting with people, it helps people see that I’m real. So I feel like people trust me because they see that, like, I’m just being myself, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Carson explained that “my game has fully been about numbers, relationships, and strategy.” And let’s not forget preparation. Probst loves that repeat challenges “rewards preparation”; I don’t, as I think that rewards a kind of privilege of time and resources not everyone has.
But I am incredibly impressed by the preparation Carson did do, from his 3D-printed puzzles to his journey from twink to twunk.
Meanwhile, Yam Yam was a ham, finding the newly hidden idol that he’d dug up—just as Carolyn said he was terrible at looking for idols—and instead revealing it to be a piece of wood. He later joked that he found it, grabbing the immunity necklace from Lauren’s previous immunity challenge win.
There were two other players, too: Heidi and Lauren. Lauren decided now was the time to “break that bond” between the Tika Three, arguing to Yam Yam and Heidi that Carson was the biggest threat, and repeating that to Carolyn.
The first immunity challenge was also for a reward.
Jeff Probst told the final five that winning would mean making the final four, where “you can’t be voted out” and can only join the jury from losing the fire-making challenge. “It won’t be because someone wrote your name down on a piece of parchment,” he said, so proud of himself for creating a way for his faves to make the finals.
Narrator McExposition was in fine form during the challenge, explaining things such as, “once you have two, you head down for three.” Ah, so that’s how sequential numbers work! Three after two!
He also told us “this challenge is on” in the middle of the challenge.
Lauren came from behind on the first part of the challenge; Carolyn fell behind, giving us some of her iconic screams as she tried to fling her key off a pole.
Carson flew threw the vertical circle puzzle, winning his second individual immunity. He also was able to take one person with him to the reward, and he chose Yam Yam.
I think that’s the right call based on Yam Yam’s tendency to suggest voting off one of his alliance members. Leave him at camp and you might find yourself blindsided.
“Thank you for bringing me to the ball,” Yam Yam said, comparing it to a date. There, Yam Yam suggested getting rid of Carolyn.
The obvious vote, though, was Lauren, who not only has friends on the jury, as Carson pointed out, but was also incredibly under-edited.
How realistic was it to think that the Tika Three would turn on each other having finally gotten to the point where they unquestionably controlled the vote? Were they seriously considering it? Or was this just producers asking questions in confessionals and getting footage that could make for a convincing edit, like during the penultimate episode?
As Lauren told us, “They bicker a lot, but I think it’s like a family bickering,” and compared it to fighting with her sister. “We know that we still have this bond that’s deeper than the fighting.”
Carolyn did convince me that the thinking and paranoia was genuine. “There’s always a possibility—and even if it’s 1 percent or 2 percent, it still scares me!” So yes, a possibility worth considering that a blindside might be coming or should happen.
Lauren went idol-hunting. The editing showed us looking at the tree where the idol was affixed to a branch, with Jeff Probst clinging to it saying, Here it is! A hidden idol! Oh, I kid. The editing very clearly did not show us if Lauren actually noticed the idol or not.
At the first Tribal Council, Lauren showed up and was like, I’m going home! Was this a misdirect or just being resigned to her fate?
“I don’t know if this is vulnerability meeting inevitability, or if it’s maybe one of the biggest moves about to happen,” Narrator McExposition explained, using his Big Boy words.
However, when Lauren started crying about knowing she needed to win immunity to stay, and said, “I’m super-proud” of her previous wins and time on Survivor, it no longer seemed like any kind of possible act.
That was true especially when an episode of The Jeff Probst Show started and its host praised her for helping him understand how to cast future players: “You transformed out here.”
Like last episode, it seems like the Survivor editors were giving us a believable possibility, despite the inevitable. And that inevitable happened: Lauren was voted out. (Correction: It was not a unanimous vote, because Yam Yam cast one vote for Heidi.)
The next day, the tears continued at the final challenge. Carolyn arrived to the platform in tears. “That dream that I would be here, but not necessarily thinking that I could, and now I am—it’s overwhelming,” she said.
The challenge was the “one of the most iconic challenges in our arse,” Probst said. Oh sorry: arsenal. It was the return of simmotion, the balls-in-metal tubes one, set atop a platform looking out over the water and distant islands. Absolutely gorgeous.
As the balls started down their tracks, Carolyn screamed, of course—and was out first, with just two balls in motion at the time.
“This could be worth a million dollars. That’s how much is at stake right now,” Narrator McExposition said. “You got nothing else going on in your life right not but this challenge.” Wow, who knew?
Yam Yam dropped next, and then, incredibly, Carson. Heidi won, and made it to the final three.
But wait! Seconds after winning her way to the final three, Heidi dropped a bombshell, saying she might not: “unless I make fire.” Yes, Heidi was proposing pulling a Chris Underwood in Survivor Edge of Extinction, though at least she was in the game all season before showing up to win.
At camp, Yam Yam wanted to make fire, calling it his “hero move,” and Carolyn said also that she wanted to “fight my way there.” Carolyn also told us that she been practicing fire-making for five years.
Carson was upset that he’s not good at making fire, which he blamed on his insecurity. “I don’t want to let my own self get in the way of my success in this game,” he said.
Yam Yam told us that Carson, well, “he no good.” But Yam Yam added, “I don’t want to see him fail in front of everyone. That’s not what friends do.”
Carson broke down while they practiced together, and Yam Yam hugged him and not only gave him a pep talk, but taught him. Yam Yam literally put his hand on Carson’s and showed him how to use the flint and knife.
“Is that a bad move?” Yam Yam asked, since they could compete against each other. “It’s not important to me.”
This moment highlighted the best of Yam Yam: charming, strategic, but still a devoted friend amidst it all.
At Tribal Council, Heidi said she still had not yet decided: “It’s going to be new news for everyone, including myself.”
All three Tika tried to nudge Heidi to make fire. Yam Yam (“the success that might bring to any of us”) and Carolyn (“because of how it might look in the end”) were a little more subtle, but Carson said it directly: “I would put myself up there.”
First Heidi decided on the person making it to the final three: Carolyn.
One of many reasons why I hate the fire-making challenge as a game element is that it makes moments like that so anticlimactic. It’s passive: Two of the three people who make the final three just sit there and learn their fate instead of having a role in it.
There was a brief moment when Carolyn reflected on her childhood, saying kids used to ask her, “Why can’t you just be normal?” Probst, channeling RuPaul, asked Carolyn what she’d say to her younger self. She said: “It’s okay to be you. Because that was my goal when I came into here.”
Heidi then announced that Carson would make fire (of course; he admitted not being able to do it), and then said she would, too.
“I’m taking a chance. I don’t want two, three, or four. I want one,” she said, referring to her final place in the competition.
That was more shocking than most blindsides—and also thrilling in that it gave the Tika Three a chance to make it to the end together.
Would Yam Yam’s generous lessons pay off? As risky as Heidi’s decision was, would it impress the jury if she beat the worst fire-maker?
The fires began, and so did the word vomit. “You need heat,” Narrator McExposition started to explain fire, perhaps trying to give some help. McExposition also said, “gotta get something to burn.” How about the recording of all your challenge audio?
Heidi had a flame almost immediately, and had a small fire by the time Carson got a flame. Heidi’s rope started to burn, and Heidi won. “One of the fastest fires we’ve ever had,” Probst said, offering some actually useful information!
Probst did acknowledge Heidi’s win, but pivoted quickly to Carson’s small fire and his “massive achievement” of getting to the final four.
As impressive as Heidi’s finale was, she was so invisible the first part of the game, my expectation was that she entered the final three as its goat, the person who’d get no votes.
While the final three got breakfast-on-beach delivered to them, we heard the jury members talk through their impressions of the final three.
“My vote is going to the person who saw opportunities and smashed them out of the park,” Matt said, sounding like he’d already decided. Meanwhile Frannie said the final Tribal Council would decide her vote.
Considering how much the jury talks at Ponderosa, I like the idea of cluing us in to their thinking, but ultimately it seemed like filler, because what they were saying was so empty and wishy-washy, like Carson saying Heidi giving him a reason to vote for her. There was no way Carson would vote for her over one of his two besties!
The editing gave us a throwback to episode one, which opened with a producer trying to get Carolyn to introduce herself, so we had Carolyn and that producer reminiscing about that day-one conversation.
Then came the jury Q&A. Kane started in a way that made me roll my eyes and wonder how long this would last.
“You need to explain your game to me,” he demanded, “and then you need to convince me—unapologetically—that it is better than the other two people.” Danny told the jury, “If my mother was up there and made a bad pitch, she’s not getting my vote.” Okay, dudes, you’re on the jury, just ask a question and shut up, thanks.
What was most interesting is how the conversation focused on playing authentically and emotionally, something that’s been dismissed in the past as some kind of weakness or failure. “I’m so happy that you get this platform to really, really show off who you are,” Matt told Carolyn.
Yam Yam kept making jokes and trying to charm the jury while also pointing out how he was on the right side of votes, and controlling some of them. Heidi interrupted, arguing that Yam Yam was just following Soka, but Yam Yam turned that around and said that was what the Tika Three wanted everyone to think. It seemed like Yam Yam even convinced Heidi in that moment!
Carolyn made the case for how “I was underestimated this entire game.” Carolyn pointed out that being so open isn’t always who she was: “When you’re actively addicted, you hold things in,” she said, saying she learned how to connect with her emotions in treatment.
Heidi tried to make an argument against the other two, saying Carson was “the brains” of their alliance. She did make an appeal for representation—for women in science, people who look like her—and also pointed out she’d be the oldest female winner. “We can make even more history together,” she said.
Heidi is only 43, which as a 45-year-old I can confirm is VERY VERY YOUNG.
I couldn’t believe she’d be the oldest winner. I looked, and it’s wild but true: Tina Wesson was somehow just 40 when she won (I think have returnee Tina in my mind); Sandra was 29 at her first win (!!) and 35 at her second; and Denise was 41 when she won.
Yam Yam also noted that he’d be the first Puerto Rican male winner.
Let’s just take a moment to pause and reflect on the impressive diversity of the final three: two players from Puerto Rico, one of whom lives there now; a gay married man; a pansexual woman; a recovered addict who now works as a drug counselor; an engineer with over 40 patents to her name.
After the discussion was over, Jeff Probst said, “I can’t remember a season where the jury held the final three accountable but did it with a sense of positivity. It may sound corny, but I think it’s a really nice way to end a great season of Survivor.”
I agree with Jeff Probst again! (What is happening?!)
The jury voted, and we saw no votes. Then Probst retrieved and read the votes:
- Carolyn: 0
- Heidi: 1
- Yam Yam: 7
Yay Yam Yam! Also: What?! Carolyn got zero votes?! Carolyn? What the actual fuck?
I love Yam Yam as a winner, both for his personality and his strategic/social game play.
I expected one vote for Heidi—though I expected it from Jaime, but it actually came from Danny!
But zero votes for Carolyn?! She clearly got the Survivor 43 Jesse edit. And I really want to know why the vote wasn’t split more.
During the after-show thingy, we did get a bit of insight. “Yam Yam did an excellent job pulling apart the complexity that is this game,” Frannie said. “You swayed me, 100 percent.”
I like the live reveal of the winner, and I also agree completely with Survivor 43’s Owen: “Fuck the after-show.” As he said then, “Just do it the next day. Let me take a shower.” Watching the cast hold pizza boxes and drink champagne is not great television, though watching Probst pry a pizza box from a crew member’s hand so he could be the one to hand it to the cast was fun.
The after-show is to stay, though Probst loves it. I wouldn’t doubt CBS loves it too, since they save all of the cost of a live finale and yet fill the same half-hour. It’s just like the 26 days: Why go back when you get the same content while spending considerably less money?
During the after-show, we did get two interesting moments. Jamie and all the players learned that her idol was fake, which got a bigger reaction than Heidi giving up immunity.
Meanwhile, Frannie and Matt confirmed they’re a couple, which is sweet, and then Jeff Probst later made a reference to them getting married. They’ve known each other for less than four weeks, dude! Some straight people just are not okay.
The Survivor 45 preview opened with “everybody here has a story” (oh god the exposition is starting already) and showed Bruce is returning—and so is the auction!
But for now, I will bask in the glow of Survivor 44, a season that, in its last few episodes, demonstrated that Survivor can be excellent when the producers step back and let well-cast people play the game.
Jeff Probst doesn’t believe that, alas, and this season gave us some lamentable decisions and frustrating episodes. Yet this season, an exceptionally well-cast group radiated joy as they played with verve. I think that’s the best we can ask for in this new era, and I’m grateful for it.