Episode 8 of Survivor 45 felt like one step forward, two steps back. There was a partially enjoyable return to a "blast from the past." But it came with a new era makeover that rapidly sucked away that enjoyment as it proceeded. Then there was the unwelcome return of forced immunity sit-outs in exchange for rice - this time camped up by a knife-wielding Jeff Probst. That was, however, merely polishing a turd of a thoroughly pointless exercise that's now in its fifth season, despite never being particularly interesting in the first place.
It was a reminder that for all the audience goodwill that's been generated by the longer runtimes this season, we're still in the new era. We're still going to have game-mangling twists that nobody asked for and nobody particularly likes, for the fifth season in a row. Yet when anyone complains about them, we're told nonsensically, "You just don't like change. They're keeping things fresh by changing things up!"
There's nothing wrong with change. Change can be good! Let's start with fewer unnecessary roadblocks to gameplay, and replace them with fun new enhancements that a clever strategic thinker or social player can deploy instead.
This was also the first 90-minute episode (apart from maybe the premiere) that felt a bit rushed. That's probably a by-product of the auction itself (and money hunt), which gobbled up about a third of the episode. The time crunch was made particularly evident by a secret scene that you can watch at EW.com, where we learn Drew talks in his sleep, which is understandably anxiety-inducing in a social game where secrecy is key. He then laments in confessional about it reinforcing his feelings of being an outsider, a problem that he's slowly overcoming in-game. It's a surprisingly touching, three-dimensional portrait of a player who has otherwise been relegated to the most dry, gamebot-y, strategy-focused confessionals, and it's deeply disappointing that there wasn't room for it in the episode.
Then again, Dalton Ross called this "a perfect episode" and the best of the season (?), and the show itself felt so proud of the episode that they had a special event to pre-screen it the night before it regularly aired. To be fair, it ended in a game-changing blindside, one that firmly established the Reba alliance as the dominant force in the game. That was indeed a big moment.
But as we'll get into, that shift in the balance of power got a huge assist from a production-dictated random event (or a series of random events), that led to one person's vote being taken away, changing what was on paper a 5-5 tie with at least one person in each five potentially swing-able ... to a 5-4 simple majority, where there was no real incentive to flip. If everything had played out unhindered, the end result would probably have been roughly the same. But wouldn't you rather watch the players decide all that themselves, rather than the invisible hand of production tipping the scale?
There's always a catch
If there's a lesson in the return of the Survivor auction, it's probably this: Be careful what you wish for. Or as Kellie said, "There's always a catch."
I've never been a huge fan of the auction myself, but it's clearly been something other fans have missed. (If your idea of peak entertainment is seeing starving people overpay for food and not-food, I guess this may indeed be a "perfect episode." YMMV.) The auction has been missing ever since it was yanked away after S30: Worlds Apart, because a disgruntled Jeff Probst complained it had become too predictable, and was tired of players hoarding their cash to buy an advantage at the end. (Not an unreasonable objection, even if Australian Survivor solved that pretty simply by sticking advantages inside food items. And having fun innovations like the king's table/beggar's table, or an actual mattress (!), but I digress.) Still, in the auction's 14-season/7-year US absence, "bring back the auction" has been one of the most popular fan requests, perhaps even displacing the incessant inane ones like "You should have a season with no idols or twists" and "You should do it in a cold location."
So the US Survivor fandom has been hotly anticipating the auction's return ever since the first glimpse of a gavel during the very first post-44 teaser for Survivor 45. While most seem relatively satisfied with the auction's return, this rebooted version somehow manages to tick the surface-level boxes (people pay exorbitant amounts of money for basic food, with the occasional zinger thrown in as a covered item, like giant fish eyes), while eventually missing the whole point entirely (fun).
In its original incarnation in The Australian Outback, the auction was presented as a fun break from the stress of the game. There were no real rules or restrictions, just food for cash. People could share money (Tina giving Elisabeth money to share a turkey dinner). They came, they paid exorbitant amounts of (Australian) money, they ate. It was also the episode where they ran out of rice at camp, and Probst showed up there later to negotiate a trade: More rice in exchange for their tarps and Colby's flag. (Right before a huge rainstorm wiped out their camp.) This rice negotiation was a little more mercenary (although at least a negotiation, unlike this season's version). The auction, in contrast, was pure fun.
Again, that's what was mostly missing in this version, especially after Austin ate the eyeball at the ad break: Fun. Does Kellie look like she's having fun?
Everything started out okay, with multiple people bidding on the first three items, but somehow the fun part got lost in the process, as there was a dark cloud looming over the entire exercise from item #6 on, one that grew larger and more ominous with each passing round. That came in the form of a new twist: Whoever had the most money left at the end of the auction lost their vote.
The exact number of items was a secret known only to Jeff Probst (and was dictated by a rock bearing a number from 6 to 15, which he drew before starting the auction, because of course it was). But as the possible end approached (starting with Dee's $900 buy on item #4, but really clicking in for good with Drew's $520 bowl of candy for item #7), everyone quickly figured out they needed to dump all their cash as soon as possible.
This is where the fun ended. There would be no more bidding wars over anything. Whoever had the highest cash total as bidding opened for each item automatically maxed out the bid and thus won, then came and collected whatever item they had bought. Because everyone started out with different amounts of money, there was no way to outbid the top bidder. So instead of a fun competition where people outbid each other for food, it was now just a grim tumble down the pecking order of decreasing wealth to see who was the unlucky person who got stuck with still having cash at the end. If you were someone like Bruce, who only had $70, there was literally nothing you could do except sit and watch helplessly as everyone else got their food and safety.
This raises a lot of questions, like "What would have happened if the number was ≥12, and everyone had cashed out?" So since we're on the subject of numbers, here's a look at all the possible rock numbers (assuming Probst had them all in his bag, and not just the one), and how Probst drawing them would have affected the game:
|Number||Most money||Effect on the game|
|6||Austin ($600)||Reba has three votes, 6-3 Belo advantage?|
|7||Julie ($420)||Reba has three votes, 6-3 Belo advantage?|
|8||Jake ($340)||Belo has four votes, 5-4 Reba + Emily|
|9||Kellie ($200)||Belo has four votes, 5-4 Reba + Emily|
|10||Bruce ($80)||Belo has four votes, 5-4 Reba + Emily|
|11||Emily ($60)||Unclear, but it's a pure 5-4 Belo over Reba|
It's not at all clear that a nominal 5-3 Belo advantage would have changed anything. The Belo women wanted Bruce out, although his winning immunity might have persuaded them to stick together for one more round, pull in Emily, and pick off a Reba (probably Austin or Dee). That was a possible outcome if Probst had pulled a rock numbered 6 or 7.
The converse is what we actually saw happen, and would also have happened with an 8 or 9: Taking away a Belo vote made it four Belo votes, vs. four Reba plus Emily. There's no reason for Emily to abandon her closest allies (Drew and Austin) in that scenario, although she might if it was clear the Belos would have overwhelming numbers going forward.
The final possibility (beyond anything from 12-15) was the number being 11, which would mean Emily would lose her vote. There it's a much tighter battle. Bruce is still immune, so there's incentive again for the Belos to hold their friendly fire, and weaken Reba's numbers while they can. If so, that's six possible outcomes, three of which break Belo's way, three of which break in favor of Reba. Should a rock really have that much of an effect on the game? Wouldn't it be better if the players determined the outcome, not production?
This was just "Do or Die" with slightly lower stakes (no vote), and the illusion of punishing someone for non-performance. Do or Die punished the first person out in an immunity challenge. Here the unforgivable sin was not finding enough money, or in Emily's case (or potentially Austin's or Kellie's), not spending enough of it all at once. Still, it all ultimately came down to the combination of a random rock draw and the luck of finding the right amount of cash in your bamboo tubes. Random taking away the players' ability to play the game isn't fun, even when it's masquerading as an auction.
Distrust the process
One of the nuggets of insight scattered throughout the many hours of podcasting that is "On Fire with Jeff Probst" was the showrunner/host explaining his creative process when it comes to twists. He said he starts with a desired outcome, then works backwards to figure out how to have the game produce that outcome. From that perspective, you can see this Frankenstein's monster of a reanimated auction corpse got jolted back to "life."
Clearly the starting point was: "Let's have an auction, except that instead of an advantage hidden among the items, someone loses their vote." While this could have been accomplished simply by making "lose your vote" a covered item, that would be really cruel even for Survivor, whereas the system they came up with here - punishing the person holding the most cash at auction's end - directly remedies one of Probst's main objections about the old format. So of course they went with that.
From there, you see how the Easter egg cash hunt was born: If everyone was just given $500 to start with (as in the old system), there could be multiple people stuck at $500, either as the top bid for an item or as the highest total at the end, and as soon as the minimum number of items has been cleared, it's all rock draws to see who gets to throw away their cash each round, an outcome that even Jeff "More rock draws, less talk" Probst might find tiresome. But if you go with the "yOu HaVe tO eArN It!" mantra and force everyone to race around the jungle collecting bamboo tubes of cash prior to the auction, well, that breaks up a lot of possible ties.
That then creates another problem: If you put the same amount of cash in each bamboo tube, you could accidentally create more ties, both for bids and for the highest total at the end. Bruce was on the low end of the probability curve with one tube. It looked like most people found three or four tubes (as expected with 40 tubes/10 people), so they were the most likely to end up tied. If you just stick $100 in each tube, and end up with a low total number of items (say 6-9), you could easily have four or so people starting (and ending) with $300. Hence each tube contains a random multiple of $20.
As a whole, it seems like a lot of work was put into reconfiguring the auction. It's all fairly logical and has clearly gone through a lot of forethought and/or trouble-shooting. But it still took away the fun of the auction, because the starting premise was ill-conceived.
Yes, people spent ridiculous amounts of money on silly food items, like in the old days. Dee blew $900 on a milkshake! That's fun, right?! Right? This was done under duress, however, not by choice. Drew didn't even want his $520 bowl of candy. He bought it because he had the most cash, and needed to get rid of it ASAP. Same for Katurah and the fish eyeballs: Yes, ha ha, she got duped. You really pulled one over on her, Probst, making that a covered item! The eyeballs were obviously disgusting and there's no way she's eating them, but oh well, at least she purged her wallet. Are we having fun yet?
So why take someone's vote away in the first place? That's not fun! Tacking that on to something that used to be fun (the auction) just lowers everyone's enjoyment. And while losing votes has indeed been the overriding throughline twist of the entire "new era," it's also one that messes with one of the basic tenets of Survivor.
The core concept of post-merge Survivor is simple: People vote each other out, sending them to the jury, where they will eventually determine the winner from among the last few remaining players. Throughout the last 10 seasons (since HvHvH), the balance between voting people out and having to deal with fallout from the jury has been gradually tilting towards lack of consequences, now it's swinging wildly in that direction.
We've already lost the final four vote (now firemaking). We have split Tribals every season, where two people join the jury at the hands of a randomly-selected group of half the remaining players (this season, only one ended up on the jury). Shot in the Dark is also a factor, but at least that's voluntary, single-use, and mostly restricted to the pre-merge. The problem is, now production is ramping up the involuntary vote losses. Bruce lost his this episode. Next week three people can't vote. That will leave just four more votes (F8, F7, F6, F5) for a potential finalist to vote for a future juror.
Bruce's edit feels like he's a probable finalist. As Kellie said, "Can't get rid of Bruce, he's gonna be here forever!" He's voted out just one person so far, and that person is not on the jury (Sifu, although he was part of the Ep6 revote against J.Maya). It seems unlikely Bruce will be in the majority the rest of the way if tribal lines hold, meaning he may not vote anyone else out. Can he go all the way to the final three with clean hands? If so, what is his argument that he outplayed anyone?
We've already had a 20-season stretch that forced us to keep asking an easily-answerable question, "What if people didn't stay voted out, and got to re-enter the game after making friends with the jury?" Is "What happens if a finalist never votes a juror out?" production's new overarching meta goal? Is that why arbitrarily removing players' ability to vote is the hot new trend? And if so, what purpose does that serve? Legitimately flummoxed here.
Started on the bottom, still there: Jake: "I'm kinda sucking at Survivor right now. Hopefully I stop sucking, that's the goal." - Jake's brand of humor works best when he's an underdog. He's really been growing on me the last couple of weeks. Hopefully he sticks around for a while longer. He had a great addition to the Tribal Council arsenal of tricks with his fake "my idol" slip-up this week. Overall, he's stepping on an infinite series of rakes, but he's always following a logical path to each rake. Not everyone is a natural at the game, but I hope his determination eventually pays off.
A question of logistics: When were the 40 bamboo tubes full of cash hidden in the jungle? During the previous night's Tribal? (If so, did people stumble across them the next morning, because surely someone went for water, right? Is there a fun secret scene of someone finding a tube, then being told, "Please put that back" by a producer?) Was it around sunrise, when all the men were on the beach and all the women in the shelter? Was it all happening while the boat was pulling up and the table was being set up? If it's the middle option, you wonder if the "women's alliance" talk was less of an actual conversation, and more just them killing time and finding something to chat about while they were all locked down in camp.
There's your problem: Julie: "I would love a women's alliance. But it's gonna be tricky because Dee and I are still four strong with Drew and Austin." And this is why the women's alliance didn't work out (it wasn't just Emily). The Reba alliance was stronger than any new option like all-women. This meant that the only available boot options were Bruce or Jake. One of them won immunity, which meant it was Jake or bust, and they all knew Bruce had an idol that he *could* give Jake (he didn't). Not only that, they'd just seen Kaleb hit on his Shot in the Dark. So it was incredibly risky for even just one "all-women" (really all women plus Drew and Austin) vote. Drew proposed to split the vote to be safe, and ... why not take out a strong player like Kellie while they're at it? So long,
dental plan women's alliance!