We're now a third of the way through Survivor 45, and at long last (for the new era), we finally have a proper tribe swap (!), with multiple people changing tribes. As it turns out, the show wasn't just being cheap about providing new buffs to everyone, they just decided that the new era game design was perfect as is, and any major changes would have been tantamount to admitting otherwise. Good to know.
But we'll get to that eventually. For now, let's focus on the positive: We still have 90-minute episodes, and that means there's enough time to actually see all three new tribes adjusting to their new combinations of tribemembers. There's time to visit Lulu after they finally win immunity (albeit with only one original member, not unlike the version of Journey or Styx or whatever currently playing at your local state fair/ Native casino). There's time to see Kaleb celebrating finally having fire.
As such, US Survivor has finally caught up to the premium standard of narrative depth established by Australian and South African Survivor. (Soon to be joined by the similarly-lengthed Survivor UK?) US Survivor has had top-notch casts for a while now. Now it also has top-tier storytelling and editing.
With this change, the US version has pulled into the overall quality lead among international versions (with SA on hiatus and UK coming in under a week). But is it yet perfect? No. The one thing holding US Survivor back is its structure, due to its inexplicable death grip on the New Era changes, despite literally nobody asking for this.
For example, this season saw the return of Beware Advantages. While the new extended treasure-hunt aspect of searching for the idols has been fun, and the differing idol-hiding procedures between camps are a fantastic choice that keeps things fresh on a week-to-week basis, the ultimate payoff for those idols is ... shall we say, poor? More on this below, but if we're reading the rules correctly, there's a chance Austin may never be able to play his idol, after all that effort.
Oh well. At least we have the return of a traditional, genuine swap. Unlike some seasons (Caramoan, despite Probst's claims on his podcast that "it's always completely random"), this one actually was 100% random, which was a welcome development. And it just goes to show, when production eases up on the micromanagement and let things play out as they will, even pure randomness can produce delightfully weird and interesting results, such as ... a Lulu on each tribe. You don't need pages and pages of instructions. Just draw new buffs!
How the swap changes the game: New Belo
New Belo is the most interesting tribe in the near term, although that may be a red herring (blue herring?). The swap gave them an even 2-2 split between original Belo and original Reba people, with Emily in the middle, leaving them on the precipice of high-stakes conflict. Drew and Austin are as tight as a duo can be, and they have a massive trinket arsenal of an idol, Drew's Goodwill advantage, and Drew's get-out-of-Tribal-free card. Opposing them are Kendra and Brando, who were sort of together pre-swap, although Brando was probably at the bottom of the Belo Women Plus Brando alliance, despite his tube-top buff skills.
Austin's statement post-swap that their best plan moving forward is just to build team unity and not lose any challenges makes sense for him, although not if he wants to fully power up his idol. In theory, the combination of the vote-sacrificing rule and Drew's Goodwill Advantage should be the best news ever for Austin. But in reading the rules of the idol, it sounds like it *has* to be powered up pre-merge, which means that Austin is rapidly running out of time.
The bad news for Austin and Drew there is that, through six challenges, they have never lost one. Three firsts, three seconds. For Austin's idol, there's a good chance its powers may already be dead, and the Belo/Reba war doesn't start in earnest until the merge. Then again, while historically having the numbers at the merge is beneficial, there are plenty of examples (especially in 3-tribe seasons) where the smallest tribe in fact has the most post-merge power, due to being the least-visible target. Which is something his ex-tribemates wrestle over this episode.
How the swap changes the game: New Reba
New Reba attended Tribal this time, and with Sean gone, we have a pretty good idea of where the remaining people - now all original Rebas - stand going forward. What's surprising is that's it's way more complicated than it had appeared in the first three episodes. We were shown a Julie-Dee alliance, with Sifu and J.Maya on the outs. But could that be changing?
The conflict this episode was a split among the women: J. and Dee both thought that Sifu can't be trusted (including at the merge and beyond), so this Tribal was the perfect opportunity to get rid of him while they still could. J. was motivated in part by a lingering concern that Sifu had found an idol, a fear neither Dee nor Julie would assuage (even though they could). Julie, in contrast, thought this was short-sighted thinking, and they should keep the tribe strong and just ditch newcomer Sean. She was quite adamant about this in confessional, but publicly resigned herself to voting with the majority - begrudgingly, based on her voting confessional - before voting for Sean anyway. Maybe the Mama J/Dee alliance isn't as tight as we were led to believe?
Then again, all this could have been easily avoided if Dee or Julie had just told J. that Austin had found the Reba idol, and Sifu was a sitting duck whenever they got around to voting for him. Both obviously felt, however, that they couldn't give that info away. Dee's decision to follow J.'s lead on the voting plan here is interesting mainly because of the contrast with Julie's opposite reaction. It's weird we didn't see Julie and Dee discussing this between themselves, only with either Sean or J. present. Still, Jeff Probst assured his "On Fire With..." podcast listeners that the plan was actually to blindside Sifu. So that's the "official" story, even if Julie's voting confessional doesn't seem to square with it.
Where Reba goes next will be an intriguing story for the next couple of episodes. (Maybe I'm giddy from a real swap, but let's hope "earn the merge" is no more, and we'll get two more boots and then a real merge.) With only original Rebas left to choose from, Sifu is pissed that someone wrote his name down. Julie seems rankled that her views were not adopted. Dee could potentially be hung out to dry by Julie or J. leaking that she voted for Sifu. Does Julie recruit to Sifu to help her take out J., sensing that maybe the younger contestant has replaced her as Dee's #1 ally? Or do they finally just all vote Sifu, sensing a merge is imminent?
How the swap changes the game: New Lulu
Last but not least, it's hard to imagine a bigger reversal of fortunes than old-to-new Lulu. From last place in every challenge (except the RC where Kaleb got to do ring toss) to way out in front and into first place. They have fire now. They can finally use the fishing gear they raided from Reba. Life is pretty sweet for Lulu now, and lest we doubt the longevity of such fortune, we were shown them ceremonially (in Kaleb's words) burning away the old Lulu's bad juju. (On Survivor, mysticism-based foreshadowing is always accurate, especially when fire's involved.)
Best of all, the tribe swap preserved the Katurah-vs-Bruce annoyance running gag, now wrapped up in fresh yellow buffs. Based on her reaction to Bruce's hilarious "whoops, I lost the flint!" routine, Kellie may be leaning to Katurah's "Bruce is annoying" position as well. With Kaleb on board (Katurah was the only one forthcoming about the cracks in old Belo to him post-swap), that could be a majority. The only complicating factor here is that Katurah's last whisper to Kendra before the swap was, "No matter what, Belo strong." Booting Bruce over an original Lulu (who's also a threat) might not sit well with the still-Belos (Brando and Kendra), although it's hard to imagine them being all that upset, since only Brando was really in an alliance with Bruce.
The confusing rules of the new idol system
In Episode 3, we saw Sabiyah leave the game after making a heroic effort to finally activate her idol by melting the candle in the Tribal Council fire ... only for it to all go up in smoke because the instructions inside were incredibly convoluted, and she had to make a split-second decision *while in the voting booth*. She had to choose between using the idol right away, when she thought she was safe, or sacrificing her vote to make it last through the pre-merge.
On one hand, this is not how the show intended for things to play out, because in most cases, a tribe would have fire. On the other hand, this *is* how production intended it, because they set up Lulu - the only tribe to have an idol encased in a candle - in a spot where they were likely to lose every challenge, and because of this season's rules, therefore wouldn't have flint, and could only ever get fire at Tribal. (It's most likely they didn't actually think all this through, but it sure has the appearance it was intentional.)
But forget all that, there are other problems. Let's pretend it was Kaleb who found the idol instead, and he sacrificed his vote in Ep3, and now has an idol that is valid (from the rules above) "until all players are on the same beach together." This is similar to - but not the same as - the wording of the swap idols from last season: "This idol has an expiration. Once all players are living together on one beach, this idol loses all power and can no longer be used.” The problem is, this one is far more vague: Does the idol therefore expire as soon as everyone lives at one camp? It sure sounds that way! New Lulu looks pretty unlikely to attend Tribal again before then. Does that mean Kaleb would have sacrificed a vote, only to now have a dead idol? And what about Austin? Like New Lulu, it's hard to imagine New Belo losing an immunity challenge, unless they throw it. Austin (and Drew, and Dee, and Julie) put in a ton of work to find that idol. If he then "earns" his way to the merge by winning every pre-merge IC, is his idol automatically dead once he gets there? The rules don't really say. They do say it's good "for one Tribal only" if he doesn't sacrifice a vote, but what if he does?
Then there's the unfound idol at Belo. Surprisingly, we didn't hear Austin and Drew discussing the new information (provided by Emily) that Lulu's idol was in a candle, and that Sabiyah left the game with it. Uniquely among the contestants, the Austin-Drew pair now has near-complete info about 45's idol system. They know how hard it was to find the Reba one, and they're now aware that Lulu had a completely different system, and therefore so should Belo. That means they're fully aware of the potential difficulty in finding and activating Belo's still-missing idol, and that difficulty is amplified by the ticking game clock, with the merge possibly as few as two days away. Even worse for the unfound idol, Drew and Austin are also completely cognizant of how piddlingly weak the idol is. Would they bother risking any votes to extend its life at most two days? Seems unlikely.
So it'll be interesting to see if anyone on Belo ever finds the Beware package. If Austin or Drew do, their best move (one they should easily be able to figure out) is to stick it somewhere for Brando or Kendra to find it, and revel in whoever opens it losing their vote for at least one Tribal. Then again, if it's Emily, there's a risk she might take the bait, thinking she knows how to activate it (they have fire!), only to dig a massive hole for herself as the potential swing vote who has no vote. (This is the worst possible outcome.) And as discussed above, it's obviously a live grenade if Brando or Kendra finds it without Drew or Austin having anything to do with it. A still-inactive idol could potentially change the balance of power on this otherwise balanced tribe.
What is this? - Can anyone figure out why the art department went to all the trouble to build a challenge at the site of the swap (behind Emily), as a decoy for the contestants ... but used an individual challenge? There were just three stations available, in each tribe's colors, so it can't be the site of a future challenge, since the F4 IC would need four stations. Curious.
Is this Tika? - Bruce briefly breaking down upon returning to the scene of his medevac was surprisingly touching, and a worthwhile segment of the show on its own. But it's also the first in-show acknowledgement that the camps are all recycled from season to season. That raises a question: Was Bruce's emotional moment shown to connect his season-to-season story arc, and give him a humanizing moment/ break from being Katurah's Michael Scott (this has to be at least partially the case), or ... a hint that this season's winner will come from the old Tika/current Lulu camp? Hmm.
Nobody was asking for a switch - At Tribal, Probst referred to the swap as "the switch," which is funny because originally (from S3: Africa to ... I dunno, late single-digit seasons?) that word and "swap" were used interchangeably by fans. Eventually, though - and for at least the last decade or so - "swap" has been the almost-exclusive preferred phrasing. So much so that when SurvivorSA has one, it's called (on-screen) a "swop," which is apparently the preferred South African spelling, which is also funny. Next thing you know, Old Man Probst will be reverting to calling the vote-out place the "Council," which was the style at the time (back in Borneo). (Note: Probably at the behest of OMP, the YouTube clip of the swap is called ... "The Switch".)