We’re back, baby. On Wednesday, Mar. 1, “Survivor” made its triumphant return for Season 44. This two hour premiere was one of the more unique “Survivor” episodes I’ve seen. The contestants are wacky, the gameplay is suspect, and the medic stayed busy.
My initial favorites were Carson and Bruce. Carson is a 20-year-old NASA engineering student. He’s a lifelong fan of the show, and showed impressive dedication after getting cast. He 3D printed “Survivor” puzzles to practice and even gained 30 pounds to improve his challenge performance. Bruce, on the other hand, is a 45-year-old insurance agent. As soon as he arrived on the beach, it was clear that he was a kind, genuine person. I liked them both immediately.
This made it tough to watch Bruce get injured just minutes into the show. In a challenge to earn a pot, machete and flint, he hit his head diving under a wooden barrier into mud. His head was bloody, and it was clear that Bruce wasn’t alright. Jeff stopped the challenge, calling the medic over. He gave Bruce an oxygen mask under an umbrella and bandaged him up. Everything seemed fine.
The second tribe to finish got to choose a “savvy” or “sweat” task to complete in order to receive those same vital supplies. The sweat task would take longer, but they had a better chance of completing it. The savvy task would be quicker with a higher risk of not finishing. Additionally, only two people from each tribe could work on each task. The Soka tribe (Claire, Danny, Frannie, Heidi, Josh, Matt) won the initial challenge by getting their rings off a pole the quickest. The Ratu tribe (Brandon, Maddy, Jaime, Kane, Lauren, Matthew) got second. The Tika tribe (Sarah, Yam Yam, Helen, Carson, Carolyn, Bruce) finished last.
Ratu opted for “sweat” and quickly regretted it. Matthew and Brandon were tasked with dragging two sizable piles of coconuts across the beach using a net. They could only drag one coconut at a time into alternating piles, and they had four hours to finish. It took them the vast majority of that time and left both Brandon and Matthew physically and mentally exhausted.
Tika, left with the “savvy” challenge, unveiled one sphere spinning inside a larger sphere. Their “savvy” challenge was counting the total number of rings in both spheres in 15 minutes. Carson and Helen did this easily, and without expending much energy. “Savvy” was clearly the right way to go. In the past three seasons, both losing tribes got to choose their challenge. I liked how this season handled it better — it incentivized second place and added an element of choice.
That night, Bruce had a severe headache and could barely open his eyes to look at the medic. He was medically evacuated, which is heartbreaking. People spend years, even decades, trying to get on this show. Leaving so early without being voted out is soul-crushing. Bruce was devastated, and I can’t blame him — I am too. Thankfully, he is fully healed now.
Very soon after, Matthew fell off a large rock and hurt his shoulder. This wasn’t surprising, as he was running around the beach and climbing for seemingly no reason. The medic put his arm in a sling, which will hinder him going forward. There was more medical involvement in this premiere than there often is in entire seasons. Hopefully, Bruce is the only med-evac.
When each tribe arrived on their beaches, they found a locked birdcage with a bag inside. “Survivor” had never blatantly put an advantage in plain sight before. Everyone wanted the contents of the bag, but finding the key and then opening the cage without anyone seeing are both arduous tasks. Tika and Soka let the cage be, at least for the short term. Ratu, though, went for it. The whole tribe searched for the key until Brandon found it near Maddy. Brandon knew Maddy could see him, so he told her about the key, and asked her if they should tell others. Giving her that power is both a sign of trust and a way to absolve responsibility — fantastic work. However, when Maddy gives him the best-case response of “No, I don’t think we should,” Brandon fumbled the bag. He told Maddy they should tell the whole tribe, and then did so. In front of everyone, Brandon read the note granting him both a hidden immunity idol and a fake idol. He could’ve gained immense power and an ally. He instead earned a massive target and an adversary. This was poor gameplay by the former Seattle Seahawk.
Matt, Lauren and Sarah went to a separate island to make this season’s “Survivor” gamble. In front of each of them was a bag that contained three packages. Two of these packages said that they’d lose a vote at the next tribal, and one gave them an advantage. They each had to reach into a bag at least once. Lauren drew the advantage the first time, which was the “Bank a Vote” advantage. For the first time in “Survivor,” she could choose to not vote at a Tribal Council and turn that into a second vote for any future round. This is powerful, especially if kept secret. Single votes can swing outcomes in the later stages of the game. Sarah and Matt both lost their vote on the first draw, and chose to draw again. Sarah got the advantage, and Matt lost another vote. Sarah’s “Inheritance” advantage was even more powerful than Lauren’s — she could inherit all idols and advantages played at any singular Tribal Council.
At the immunity challenge, Ratu’s poor choice of “sweat” caught up with them. The tribes had to move massive puzzle blocks around at the end, draining every bit of Brandon’s remaining energy. He had to finish the challenge in the shade with the medics, leaving Ratu without their best challenge competitor. Unsurprisingly, they lost.
Back at Ratu’s camp, Matthew and Brandon’s initial target was Lauren. While they were sitting out of the immunity challenge, Matthew briefly talked to Claire. She knew everything about the gambling mechanism from her tribe’s Matt — opening Matthew’s eyes to the fact that Lauren had lied.
Maddy wanted Brandon out because of the misplay with the cage. It makes sense, as Brandon showed that he didn’t trust her. Everyone knows he has an idol, so it wasn’t a hard pitch. Jamie was quickly on board, but incredibly paranoid. She wanted to play her shot in the dark, which made no sense. You only get one of those all season, and it only gives you a one-in-six shot at safety at the expense of your vote.
At Tribal, chaos erupted. It was clear that these players were still adjusting to “Survivor.” Despite the fact that she was never in danger, Jamie played her shot in the dark. Hilariously, she became the first “Survivor” to be “saved” by that twist. Matthew also played his shot in the dark, but wasn’t safe. Again, I really didn’t get this. He wasted it way too early, and he wasn’t in danger. This made Brandon suspicious, so he saved himself from elimination with his idol. Lauren banked her vote for the future, and Maddy went home. Honestly, Maddy was playing the most logical game of anyone on that tribe, but it was funny to see her sent home with just one vote.
This cast is all over the place. Jamie is already more stressed in two days than I’ve seen most Survivors get in 39 and Matthew seems to have a goal to get medically evacuated as quickly as possible, and Yam Yam goes by Yam Yam. I’ve yet to even mention Twitter’s favorite Survivor, Carolyn. She possesses a nervous, unpredictable energy that lends itself perfectly to reality TV. Carolyn has already briefly forgotten how interviews work and is one of the wildest characters I’ve seen. I’m excited to watch just for her exploits.
The early returns might not suggest the most strategic season, but they do suggest a fun, kooky ride. I’ll be along the whole way. Tune in next week to see what happens, and how badly Matthew injures himself once again.