Episode 2 of Survivor 45 was the first 90-minute episode that was longer than its "new era" Ep2 counterparts (with the exception of 43's, which was also an hour and a half). And it felt like the start of a completely new new era.
Colin Stone tweeted accurately about the different feeling of Survivor 45 relative to its post-pandemic predecessors: "It's incredible how a 50% increase in runtime is making these episodes like 1200% more fun and interesting."
I couldn't agree more.
Which is a bit weird, because it's not like the excesses of the new era game have really been pared back. If anything, the Beware Advantage mechanism has become slightly more baroque (one more step, anyway). Here, there was a "surprise" journey on Day 4 ... which was really just the Day 2 dilemma/journey from 41-44, time-shifted to an otherwise empty day in the schedule. What's different here is that, despite all the same elements still being in place, there's enough space around them - 30 (well, 21) glorious more minutes! - that the many forced milestones of the new era feel less onerous. When a journey and its various dilemma decisions no longer take up close to a third of the episode, it doesn't feel as much like an uninvited houseguest who has overstayed any semblance of welcome by more than two years.
That feeling of freshness, of freedom, comes from the return of some of the elements that helped audiences fall in love with Survivor in the first place: extended camp sequences that aren't just talking about idols or strategy; scenes in which we see the contestants' personalities align or clash, where we see the relationships between the players build (or break down); and of course, the intro (or main titles)! There is once again time for all those things to be shown, time that was absent in an hour-long show with three tribes to get to, with idols in each camp, along with a journey or RC, immunity challenge, and Tribal Council that needed to be crammed into each episode somehow, too.
This episode had a scene dedicated to Dee's extra-long big toes, which sounds silly (because it was) but it gave us a chance to see the Reba tribe just relaxing and enjoying each other's company. It's almost as if - bear with me here - Survivor has suddenly remembered what it's all about in the first place:
Even Jeff Probst has recently said something to the effect of "Survivor is primarily a social game." (I can't find the exact quote, but he actually tweeted something similar, way back in 2015!)
That's right! Jeff Probst, renowned stan of alpha-male challenge beasts, said the *social game* was the most important aspect of the show. Not the physical game. Not a strategic game. Not a game where "you have to make big moves." It's an amazing evolution (even if that's always been the most important thing).
One of the most rewarding story threads this episode was Kaleb taking the initiative to work with Emily and help her become a better player. It was framed as partially strategic (he described it as something a "good player" might do), but it was also profoundly human, in that he was just helping someone find their footing socially after they were targeted for the boot the night before. And as Ryan Kaiser pointed out, it's one that might have fallen through the cracks if this episode had merely been an hour long. Emily's vote wasn't critical to the outcome, and she was likely going to vote for Brandon anyway, since she couldn't vote for herself. But seeing the deeper explanation of how this came about - and the developing relationship between Kaleb and his mentee - made the experience so much richer.
It shouldn't really surprise anyone that 90 minutes works well for Survivor. This has been the standard length for both the Australian and South African versions over the past few years, and they've both churned out top-notch seasons in that time. Probst himself has talked about wanting this extra time for this exact reason, but had been unable to convince the network ... until now. There's no guarantee this will last forever, though, so enjoy the extra time while we have it.
The rise and fall, and additional falling, of Charlie Brandon
There have been few Survivor contestants who came into the game as excited to play - yet had everything go completely, horribly, wrong - as Brandon Donlon. It's fair to say that some of this was Brandon's own fault. He was underprepared for the physicality of the first IC, sure. His attention to detail failed him on the journey tile-matching game, okay. But there was also a lot that was just bad luck: He didn't choose to have a panic attack in the opening challenge. There wasn't much he could do about his reflux except grind through it. The puzzle in the second IC was brand-new, he couldn't have practiced it at home. It's not his fault that his assigned tribe didn't have a tall and/or super-strong person to pull them through the height/muscular parts of the first two ICs, nor a puzzle whiz to help make up for those deficits.
That said, there were a lot of things that Brandon did well. Letting Sabiyah take the Beware Advantage off his hands was a wise move, because he knew he was at or near the bottom, and needed his vote. (Results-oriented, but: This season's more complicated Beware rules made that decision seem extra prescient.) Hours later, risking that some vote when he thought he could match tiles and open a combo lock in three minutes? That was also a reasonable projection, he just fumbled the execution. Had he pulled that off, he would have avoided his boot here. It just didn't work out. He built reasonably strong social bonds with everyone in his tribe, except maybe Emily. Despite everything in the first three days, he was in a decent-ish spot.
The best part of Brandon's time on the show is that he has never wavered in his love of the game, even as waded through one of the toughest early runs of it. In his final words, he sells the show better than Jeff Probst ever has in his seasonal exhortations to apply: "I would have liked to have won *something*. Something would have been ideal. But otherwise, I got to authentically live out my childhood dream, and not many people can say that. You *have* to come do this. Hopefully you end up doing better than I did, by a little bit? But otherwise, you will have the most incredible time of your life."
And who can begrudge a guy living out his dream, when he mocks his own foibles as well as this?
Welcome to the post-show/ Survivor-alum side of the experience, Brandon. Go do all the live events and social-media postings that are expected of this status, you've earned it. (Try not to trip on any rocks on the way.)
Grading the adjustments to the new era
While the overall structure (always three starting tribes of six, fake merge in Ep6, actual merge in Ep7, etc.) has stayed roughly the same, the actual day-to-day content of the new era has finally started to diverge away from what by the third season had started to seem fairly predictable (see the "always-the-same era," from back in 43). Slowly, things other than the runtime have started to diverge from that blueprint, and mostly for the better. Here are some good - and one bad - alterations so far this season ... mostly enjoyable, so far.
"YoU hAvE tO eaRn iT" (the flint): This is the bad part. It all just seems pointlessly cruel. Is the show trying to create a shot-for-shot remake of the suffering of the Ravu tribe in Fiji? If so, why?
In past seasons, the tribe losing the first IC got their flint when they attended Tribal. Here? Nope. No food, no flint. They're getting by on water and whatever fruit they can scavenge. And this plays out specifically in robbing Sabiyah of her vote in this episode, all on what seems like a producer's whim. This is even more unsightly when you consider Lulu started off with the weakest team on a person-for-person basis. The lack of fire is making everything worse. They needed a miracle to escape this fate, they didn't get one, and now it's all downhill from here ... until or unless there's a swap (which the Ep4 title, "Music to My Ears," seems to hint at, even if it's likely just one escapee, as in 44).
No Day 2 journey - Having items be exclusively available on journeys is not ideal, because they are not equally accessible to all players. Note that Emily and Brandon both wanted to go for Lulu, and Brandon just got to go, for some unshown reason. It was nice to have the first visit be (sort of) a surprise ... shifted to the next off day, but it apparently fooled Emily, at least. Beyond that, this version of the journey is the best yet.
Having the advantage-winning task be a game that's familiar to fans - matching tiles to open a combo lock, presumably it will be something different the next time - is a massive improvement over what happened in 44. Here, the journey-takers were fully informed about the task they needed to complete, and most importantly, after evaluating the risk involved, were able to opt out. In 44, *everyone* had to reach into a bag and risk their vote. It was a marriage of a not particularly entertaining payoff and an unfair situation to force players into in the first place. All of that was fixed completely here. It's as if someone took our advice and copied the system from SurvivorSA: Immunity Island, which was very similar. However it happened, an excellent choice.
The new Beware Advantage - Having the process be more of a multi-step process (for Lulu, just one more step, really, since Sabiyah would now have an idol on a normal season), more of a treasure hunt (like back in Gabon)? For this season, it's a good choice. It's cool to give the players something to do on off days, and with 90-minute episodes, there's enough space in the show to feature it without displacing other important footage. But the best part from a viewer's perspective: Different tasks in each camp keep it fresh. The bead necklaces and the birdcage seemed exciting when we saw the first person go through the process, but they felt increasingly stale each time after that. For the viewers, not immediately knowing where Austin's clue led or what Sabiyah had to do helped maintain the suspense/interest in each camp. This was really well thought through. Great work!
Get on with it - It feels like Austin's idol search may be being dragged out longer than it actually took to complete. He found the clue on Day 2, and immediately figured out what he needed to do (above) to solve it, but then waited two days to try? That seems a bit far-fetched. Then again, he clearly had not found the "fallen palm tree X" before Drew went on his journey on Day 4, so maybe two days of frustrating searches explains Austin's decision to loop Drew in on the info? So ... what happens if Drew completes the second task on his own, without Austin, keeps the idol, then doesn't tell Austin? Does Austin get his vote back? Or is he screwed throughout the pre-merge? (JT would never do that to Stephen, but he might have to any number of non-Stephens, and who knows, Drew might.)
It's (almost) always the blue tribe - One of the under-appreciated staples of the original (weird phrases) Beware Advantage system was how there was always one tribe out of the three where nobody found (or took) the last package until right before the "Beware" penalties expired. (It was usually the blue tribe.) There's then a miraculous "find" right before the final IC where the idols could be activated. That was Luvu (blue, Naseer) in 41, Ika (blue, Drea) in 42, and breaking the pattern, Baka (yellow, Jeanine) in 43. 44 had the birdcages, which had no penalty. But with the Beware part back, once again the blue tribe is the last to find their Beware package, and this time, it's way more complicated. Who will be the lucky Belo person to find the Beware package sitting right out in the open on the first day of Episode 5?