It was probably inevitable that a season as massively hyped as Survivor 44 would not be an obvious all-timer, at least not fresh out of the gates. It's hard to universally praise a season in the early going when someone is medevacced 30 minutes into the premiere, due to injuries they sustained in the opening minutes of the show. Since then, the season has delivered glimpses of creativity, moments of excitement and fun, but also a lot of repetitive, unnecessary production Big Events, and frankly several disappointing outcomes (each tribe voting out an interesting female player with a lot of untapped potential).
Still, as we'll get into below, there's a good season buried in here somewhere, we just need a Carolyn to dig through the poop and find the tooth.
It does feel good to laugh, which is honestly so healthy out here
There were a lot of fun camp life and character moments in this episode. We learned Kane is a lovable, fantasy-besotted goofball, someone who full-throatedly sings the Canadian national anthem for his tribe, apparently had a little more fun than was shown with the immunity sword, then asked Probst to knight him after the IC. (Somewhat relatedly, it's also fun that the two-part idol finally has separate nameable parts, so that Probst can say "Now you're playing for the shield" for that portion of the IC after the actual winning tribe has already won, and we're collectively pretending that the second-place idol is more than a glorified participation trophy.)
We also were able to see the Ratu tribe eating worms, for some reason (we spent more time on this than on the tiny fish that Brandon speared). It's not really clear why people on Survivor do this, since one worm probably has at most 1 calorie in it, so you'd need to spend most of the day digging them up to get slightly more nutrition than from your average US snack. But I guess if the show isn't going to do gross food challenges any more, it's cool that the contestants can stage their own DIY versions of it in camp, and have it make it on the show. It's also a throwback to people eating rats in Borneo, so yay for the historical nod.
Over on Tika, everyone laughed about Yam Yam's snoring, and enjoyed his slow-mo Baywatch running-on-the-beach theatrics. Yam Yam also hilariously provided his own play-by-play during the IC, perhaps because Tika was on the far side of the course, and Old Man Probst couldn't see that far (a good case for going back to two tribes). Carson congratulated himself in confessional about downplaying his threat level, while Sarah talked about how, actually, Carson's threat level was off the charts. Precious little from Carolyn this episode, but that's probably for the best: the editors are pacing themselves, and letting other people also have some screen time, which might help avoid an audience backlash due to oversaturation of a fun character.
All of these scenes were made possible because unlike in Survivor 41-43, there was no dilemma trip in Episode 3. If there's one thing that's been exhausting about New Era Survivor, it's been the utter predictability of the fixed story elements (dilemma journey in Eps 1, 3, and 5; fake merge in Ep6; negotiated sit-outs at the Ep8 IC; split Tribals at F10, etc.). So this was a refreshing change of pace on its own, and the payoff was all this time to just hang out in camp with these people, see who gets along with whom, and just generally decompress. Not every second of the show's runtime has to be rigidly scheduled events! More of this kind of content, please.
Other, more manufactured 'fun'
The rest of the non-challenge/ -scrambling/ -Tribal time was spent on fake idols, which was, well ... good and bad. Fake idols have a long (now 31 seasons!) history in Survivor, but they've always been a bit of a two-edged sword. They're fun when someone annoying finds the idol, confidently plays it, and ends up with egg on their face. But they're less fun when played by a desperate underdog, just trying to last one more round. There's an underlying mean-spiritedness about fake idols, much as with the idol nullifier. It was clever when Yau-Man came up with the idea, and funny when Ozzy's shittiest fake idol ever somehow worked (despite Eliza's objections). But 28 seasons after the "just a fucking stick" idol, production has oddly decided that now, of all times, is the time to embrace them wholesale, and officially endorse their use in the game (not counting Debbie turning down Cochran's offer of a fake idol kit in Game Changers).
That was of course one of the goals of the birdcage idols, which also gave the finder an officially sanctioned fake idol, and all but encouraged them to plant it back in the birdcage. So this week we had Danny doing exactly that: wrapping up his production-made fake idol in the real idol's note (after Werner-ing the fake idol note, then Tony-ing his way back to the birdcage), putting it back in the Soka birdcage, and then hiding the key in an obvious spot. The entertainment value here mainly came from Danny's frustration that people weren't finding the idol he tried very hard to not over-hide, followed by his odd decision to confront the person he knew had found it (Matt), ostensibly to put the target on Matt (who already had a target, due to losing his vote AND having an obvious showmance with Frannie).
This, of course, took up a lot of time. There was Danny talking about finding the idol (again). And eating the note. And rewrapping the now-fake idol and putting it in the cage. And rewrapping and hiding the key. Then convincing the tribe to search for the key. Then confronting Matt about it. Then Matt excitedly talking about finding it, in confessional, to Danny, to Josh, then to Frannie. Whee! And this was "fun" because ... ? As Ryan Kaiser said this week: Matt seems like a genuine, good-hearted guy, someone who's already on the ropes thanks to the show forcing him to risk his vote, which he promptly lost (then foolishly tried to salvage something from the process, and lost another one). It's going to suck when he gets burned by this.
But that wasn't even the end of this week's Fake Idol Frolics. Oh, dear no. That's because it turns out over an Ratu, Matthew actually found their real idol way back on the first day of Episode 2 (the day after Brandon played their original birdcage one), and we're only just now finding out about it. (I guess because last week was all about Tika and Soka people opening their birdcages, and we the audience are too dumb to follow some kind of mix and match storyline, unless it's presented during Fake Idol Week, which is sort of confusing, because it's real.) And it appears we're only finding out about the REAL idol because Matthew then used the paperwork from that to build his own bead-bracelet thing out of items from camp, on the sly. Then he wrapped up that piece of craftwork, stuck it in the well, and waited two days - perhaps longer than Danny, it's unclear - before essentially guiding Jaime's worm-digging efforts to a spot right in front of the fake idol.
Of the two fake idol stories, the editors clearly favored the one production all but wrote the script for (Soka's), even though Matthew's scheme showed a lot more ingenuity. Still, as Damnbueno called out in Ryan's comments, it's not really clear what Matthew has to gain from duping Jaime in this manner. Matthew said in the show it gave them something to bond over, which makes short-term sense, and may pay off. At least until Jaime's tempted to use it, at which time there will be an awkward conversation, most likely. Or if Matthew decides he and Jaime need to go their separate ways, he can let her take herself out with it (which will be as sad to watch as when Matt plays his fake one).
Despite all this, the "sick merry-go-round" nature of each tribe having a real idol that looks like another tribe's (official) fake idol is still an intriguing long-term storyline. One that will in all likelihood also burn someone we like, because who's not to like this season?
The not-very-subtle moral of this episode was: If you come on Survivor, you had better be participating in the challenges, or we'll shine a spotlight on you and make you look like you don't deserve to be here. (Also, if you're a woman, there's a good chance you'll be first out of your tribe in New Era Survivor, but Dalton Ross already covered this quite well.)
Claire's reasoning for sitting out was quite logical: There were other people better-suited for the tasks in the challenges than she, so she sat out to give them the best chance at winning. This season's first three ICs have all followed the same pattern, which has really been the pattern for every New Era pre-merge immunity challenge: (1) Some sort of physical task requiring strength and/or an obstacle course, which almost always favor people who are strong and/or tall; (2) some other physical task, possibly requiring balance/agility, then (3) a puzzle or a carnival game (tossing sandbags or balls). They're all pretty much the same. Think back to the past four seasons, and be honest: Do you really remember anything in particular about *any* pre-merge challenge, beyond the one where production stupidly started it when the tide was too high, and everyone not on Jonathan's tribe almost drowned? There was that one with the balls, no wait, the puzzle, you know the one I'm talking about ....
It's important to note that Probst did Claire no favors in his open disdain for Claire's decision (and of Soka letting her) to sit out a third immunity challenge. He all but incepted the tribe to blame her for the loss (which she played no role in, obviously). In his podcast, he hand-waved this away as "I ask a lot of questions."
You know what would have helped Claire compete more often? Having more challenges in which someone who's 5'2" and not super-brawny can participate. This week's IC puzzle required Matthew — who is no giant, but is taller than 5'2"! — to stack something heavy, at a height over his head (see pic above). Carson also struggled with this a bit. How was Claire supposed to participate in that puzzle, especially when they already had tall, smart players who could it in Matt and Frannie? The task she was offered in the pre-challenge huddle was spinning the keys off the springs over the water - a role that ultimately (smartly) went to taller players, too. Claire did participate in the one puzzle that wasn't sliding super-heavy boxes or stacking heavy AND tall boxes, way back in the Ep1 RC. And Soka placed first in that one!
Survivor challenges used to have more variety. Now they are these rote, cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers, mix-and-match combinations of elements. Wait, "By the Numbers"! (The one from Vanuatu and One World where people try to pass each other on a balance beam, below.) That's a classic challenge that favors small, agile people. Why don't we see that any more? Oh right, because now we always have three tiny tribes, and that one works best with six/seven or more people and two tribes.
I know Jeff Probst claims to not ever watch international seasons (even though US Survivor stole the Ep8 IC in David vs Goliath from AU), but SurvivorAU has a LOT (probably too many, TBH) challenges that feature head-to-head matchups, like "Idol Hands" (seen in Philippines and Cagayan). As demonstrated this season in AU: HvV, those allow/reward strategic losses - putting up your smallest player against the other tribe's strongest, to gain an edge in the other matchups. Even the turnstile challenge (which is ostensibly purely strength-based), which both AU and SA have used, can be gamed with strategic losses. So why can't US Survivor do more of those? Oh, right, again - because now we always have three tribes, and head-to-head requires two.
So even though theoretically "anyone can win" Survivor, you actually have to be relatively tall and, increasingly, physically strong to actually get to the point where you can win. Or be lucky enough to be on a tribe that never loses in the pre-merge. Cool! I wonder if that's in the official rules now.
Wonky timelines: This was the first time an idol find was presented as a flashback to a prior episode, although to be fair, past players have often pointed out that their idol finds actually happened much earlier in their season than the episode in which the discovery appeared. Still, this raises questions we now may never know the answer to, such as: Did Matthew find Ratu's second idol before Tika or Soka found their first? Already, from Carolyn's costume changes, it was clear her key/idol finding took place at dramatically different times (probably separate days). In the end, it doesn't really matter. But it's disconcerting knowing that the order of events shown can be this detached from reality.
Bruce saves (?!): Speaking of rigid timelines in the New Era, Mike Bloom pointed out that the timing of the finale means there will be 13 episodes, which means the finale will start with five players left, if there's no more double boot episodes. That means that to make up for Bruce's medevac, production may have axed the irritating split Tribals at Final 10, which means ... for the first time in the New Era, there will be a Final 9 vote! Bruce sacrificed himself for the greater good. Thank you, Bruce. (Unless production compensated by resurrecting the hourglass, in which case they will still need a double-boot episode, in which case please all fire yourselves.)