As the pre-merge(atory) portion of the game closes out, Survivor 45 has thus far flourished with its additional time, giving the audience a much deeper connection to the players and the game, one that had recently been missing, especially in the twist- and advantage-heavy "new era." There have been blemishes, sure, with a quit and another player who asked to be voted out. But the audience has also gained far more insight into the personalities and camp lives of the 13 remaining contestants we'll spend the remaining eight episodes with.
The biggest problem early in the new era was the plethora of new advantages, many of which required extensive explanation. Just last season, Sarah Wade received almost as much screen time winning and reading the rules for the Inheritance Advantage than playing the rest of the game. While the advantage sounded interesting, we learned virtually nothing about Sarah before she was voted out while holding it.
That's changed this season. The contestants are once again the focus, and the show is the better for it. Backstories no longer feel shoe-horned in - and actually serve to enhance the characterization, as with Jake's battle with an eating disorder this week - because there's enough regular story there to balance them out. Even elements that still feel like pointless time-wasting (the journey) at least have more context and are not taking the place of strategic maneuvering back at camp, so they feel less burdensome.
It's unclear whether 90-minute episodes are here to stay, or if this is instead a one-off CBS experiment with its two long-running reality competition shows, Survivor and The Amazing Race. If it's the latter, the improvement in quality has been matched by a rise in ratings, so hopefully it's an experiment that's allowed to play out for much longer.
There are still a few open questions and lingering discussion points from the pre-merge, though. That's what we'll go through here.
Original Reba: Land of useless beads
Despite last week's deep dive on Austin's idol, it's still unclear if, despite sacrificing his vote this week, it's still active. From the note he read, extending its life once only makes the idol last "until" everyone is on one beach, which appears to be less than 24 hours after this episode's Tribal. Did he burn Drew's Goodwill Advantage for no actual gain? (Given that they've been swapped for like 3.5 days in real time, it was reasonable to think there might be another three-tribe IC/Tribal cycle.) We won't get an answer to this until next episode. But even if it *is* still active, it's quite likely we'll have the standard new era random-teams IC, Austin will be on the winning team, and will thus be immune anyway, and his idol will disappear in a puff of logic. All that work for an idol that lasted half as long as the one Gabler received for ... reaching into a bag. Hooray, progress.
Then there's Sifu and his well-constructed fake idol. Cool idea, and it appears to have actually worked (?!). Despite Dee and Julie being 100% sure Austin found Reba's idol, they still seem to think Sifu also has one. So much so that they're willing to burn an ally (J.) who seems loyal, while keeping Sifu around. (So much for Dee's supernatural ability to detect bullshit.)
And speaking of J. (and Austin), there are now two more original Rebas with another set of useless beads: The amulet advantage(s). It was an interesting choice to throw the advantage amulets in at this point - right before merge, as opposed to in the opening RC, as seen in Survivor 42. In the original version, it did seem like a cool way to establish a secret cross-tribal alliance. With the change in timing, a plus is that they're theoretically functional (since all must be used at the same Tribal) nearly right away, which is more interesting. On the other hand, these three are all aware how the original amulets played out (more target-inducing than bonding), and there's virtually zero chance these three will actually work together.
Austin's sarcastic take was 100% spot on: "Let's all work together and use this stupid extra vote between the three of us, even though we're never going to agree who to vote out!" So instead of eating a sandwich, he had to go back to his camp (the only one that didn't win any fish), and lie about an "advantage" he definitely did not want, because it makes him a target. Oh well, at least he has multiple strings of beads now. Hooray!
There's an obvious lesson here: If you find some beads production hid/gave you, they're likely useless. But if you make something from beads you found, it's way more valuable.
The confusion and brilliance of the post-swap edit
All in all, only minor complaints (mostly confusion from paying too close of attention, really) here: For the most part, the editing has been quite balanced and thorough this season, and the audience has benefited greatly in having a much deeper look at and appreciation for the human connections the contestants make. We've often heard players say it's hard to vote people out when you've bonded with them. It's much easier for viewers to understand that now that we've had enough time to actually see it.
(It doesn't seem like it will be all that difficult for Katurah to vote for Bruce, nor vice versa.)
Still, one problem the show's editors appeared to have over Episodes 4-5 was keeping up with continuity as they tell different stories. Partially at fault is that the contestants have more clothes than they used to - which is great for the contestants! In the old days, an editor could grab any shot from a 3-5 day period and it would look consistent. Now, if as a viewer you're actually paying attention to the clothes people are wearing, you'll tie yourself in knots trying to follow Reba's timeline.
We start with them returning from Tribal in the dark - that's all good. But the next day is Day 10, and we get multiple visits to camp, and it's like Groundhog Day, as we (apparently) keep returning to Reba waking up the morning after Tribal. First we have the contrast between Dee discussing her drive to compete, and the three women wishing Sean had just quit. This is mostly in the middle of the day, because everyone's in short sleeves, and Sifu is even in the water, washing up. Then we cut to Sifu's perspective, and it's early morning again - he's standing in camp in his sweatshirt next to Julie. He talks (in confessional) about his fake idol. Even within this fake idol bit, Sifu starts off wearing his sweatshirt, then he's in short sleeves when he hints to Dee that he has an idol, then it's back to the opening shot of him in his sweatshirt next to Julie. It's bizarre! Then he talks about "push hands" with J., which she takes as a veiled threat.
Later in the episode, after all sorts of time has passed at Belo and Lulu, it's early morning at Reba again, and J. is wearing a warm hoodie, sitting with Dee and Julie, and J. volunteers to tell Sifu she voted for him. It's all very confusing, especially since it's clearly *after* the "push hands" thing (when everyone was denying voting for Sifu), because while Sifu was in his sweatshirt then, J. had apparently warmed up and was in her sweater vest. The only thing that makes sense is that this volunteering decision actually happened the morning of Day 11, and it just was just mislabeled as "Day 10" for some reason? Otherwise it sure didn't make any linear sense, especially since Julie says in confessional that the plan was to blindside Sifu so he doesn't play his "idol," but now she and Dee are thinking they should just blindside J.
Having said all that ... there was also some artful editing brilliance in the episode, as the "Kendra vs. worm" part ended with Kendra admitting on the beach, "Worm 1, Kendra 0" as the final score. This is at the top of the episode, and when you combine it with her title quote ("I Don't Want to Be the Worm") during the scrambling segment, in which she also asserts "Drew is the worm," it cleverly foreshadows the outcome of Tribal, in which Drew's side reigns supreme over Kendra's in securing Emily's allegiance.
It's the kind of thing you only notice when you're rewatching the episode, but it's fantastic that's it's there for the repeat viewer to enjoy.
Jeff Probst vs. reality
In general, "On Fire with Jeff Probst," the "official" Survivor podcast, serves its stated purpose of going through each week's episode from three perspectives: production (Probst), the players (Rick Devens), and fans/the audience (Jay the producer). But be careful how much weight you put on the "official" part of that equation, because Probst is prone to telling some whale-sized whoppers that are so brazenly and obviously untrue, you wonder why he says them.
Case in point: Two weeks ago, when the end-of-show teaser revealed the swap was coming, Jay expressed his delight (generally shared by fans) at seeing the return of the tribe swap, because it shakes up the game. And then Probst pipes up with this:
"The fun thing about a swap is they're ALWAYS random. We don't engineer to redistribute, you know, men vs women, or a certain number of people from each tribe. They're completely random!"
Seriously! He actually said those words in that order! If you don't believe me, go to the podcast, listen to Ep.3, "The High Highs and the Low Lows." It's right at the 49-minute mark.
If you've watched any Survivor season prior to 41 you should be aware, of course, that this is complete and utter bullshit. Thankfully, it was actually true about 45's swap (and for that matter, every swap in the new era, since this was the first one). Survivor 45's swap really was blessedly random. But to see a counter-example you need only go back to ... the very last tribe swap before that, in season 40, Winners at War (below, or, for that matter, pretty much any other swap you pick at random).
There, they very much "engineered to redistribute men vs. women," because Probst is holding separate trays of wrapped buffs, one for men and one for women to draw from. This ensured that two of the three new tribes had three men and one had two, and that they didn't end up with some wonky distribution with like Wendell, Yul, Jeremy, Ben, and Tony all on one tribe.
And you know what? The WaW swap mechanism is perfectly fine! If you want roughly balanced swaps, that's a good way to do it! What does Probst hope to gain by pretending otherwise?
Part of the agenda of the podcast is clearly to reassure fans that the show is completely above board, everything is pre-planned, and they never do anything to favor a particular outcome. This comes up frequently in Probst's banter. And for the most part, that's reasonably accurate, but WHY lie about this minor detail, especially when it is so easily disproven?
It's not like Probst doesn't remember holding two trays of buffs when he did this four short years ago (and most of the seasons before that). So why lie? That does the opposite of reassuring fans that Survivor is on the up and up. Rather, it makes you question everything Probst says, and look for what kind of angle he's trying to play. It creates DIStrust in the showrunner. For a show that's based on misleading your companions, and where trust is the ultimate currency, that ought to be obvious.
The Ghost Island of unaired advantages
As mentioned on "On Fire..." (Ep1), the premiere had an unaired advantage, via which Kendra got to spend the post-IC portion of Day 3 at Lulu camp, observing, taking notes, and making alliances (and casting an unaired and uncounted vote for Brandon).
From Brando's exit interviews, we learned this week that he discovered an apparent advantage of some kind in his swap buff. He pocketed it on the mat, intending to read it private later, but was called away for a confessional shortly after returning to Belo camp. The producer then asked for and kept the advantage, before Brando had even had a chance to read what it was.
We also know there was an idol nullifier in Survivor 42's fish reward for Taku, which Jonathan almost lost, but Omar discovered (with Jonathan present), and kept, but it never made it onto the show, because it was (thankfully) unused.
Going back to Edge of Extinction, there have also been a number of recent reward challenges that were cut for time, as well. (Nobody from the show has ever mentioned this, but there was also an episode of Island of the Idols that lacked a trip to the island, which I suspect was because a certain player who shall not be named went on it ... a reasonable part to excise from the show.)
It's remarkable that there are so many major elements to the show that never make it into the final version. Two more advantages just this season does seem like a lot. It's possible that Brando's advantage will be reused in a later season, but what was the point of putting it into the game, then immediately thinking better of it?
One possibility, which Brando himself suggests, is that it was something that needed to be played on the spot during the swap - (again, as suggested by Brando, a possibility that he admitted to Rob Cesternino has haunted him since he was voted out) perhaps it allowed him to better his position, and immediately re-swap himself for another player, if possible?
That seems the most likely - or at least some other action that had to be performed immediately post-swap - because it's deeply unlike this show to say to itself, "No, that's too many advantages." Plus it's sort of similar to SurvivorSA's "diplomatic immunity" advantage, which allows the bearer to change tribes after an IC.
Oh well, looking forward to a future Ghost Island 2 season, where it's all unaired challenges (a staple since Borneo!) and advantages. (Except of couse the IotI trip, but feel free to have Boston Rob and Sandra secretly observe Tribal again instead.)
Just you wait - Austin, starving on Day 10: "Day 10 has got to be THE most difficult day yet on Survivor."
Austin, Day 11, having been talked out of sandwiches and having to go back to camp and lie about getting an "advantage" he definitely did not want: "This has got to be ... probably the worst day in my Survivor career." Fantastic bookending of the episode.
"You're okay. It's not poop, it's dirt" - Brando, trying to convince Kendra to eat the worm: "(It's) 70% protein!" ... pause ... "30% poop." Between this and Kendra's absolutely perfect "If Lulu comes over here [to raid our camp], I will lose my [expletive] ... pause ... [fake smile]" confessional in Ep.3, it feels like we missed out on some comedic gold by rarely visiting Belo camp.