Survivor 44 recap: X marks the spot

WWJD? That's what every Survivor player should constantly be asking themselves. What Would Jeff Do?

That may seem to be a weird consideration. After all, for all his talk, expertise, and dimples, Jeff Probst has never actually played Survivor. Why should you spend so much time thinking about how that guy would play Survivor? The answer: You shouldn't. You should think about how that guy would produce Survivor. Because that is exactly what Probst does.

Okay, let's set the scene so I can explain what the hell I am talking about. Three people (Carson, Josh, and Jaime) were sent to Journey Island, where they had to go their "Separate Ways" and "Don't Stop Believin'" that they might come away with an amazing advantage in the game. Instead, they were told that they had to join another tribe.

So Josh went from Soka to Tika, Carson went from Tika to Ratu, and Jaime waved her magic wand, which magically transported her from Ratu to Soka. Of course, since Journey Island is filled with advantages, other players wondered if any of the returning players had come back with an idol, but they weren't sure. Danny went through Jamie's bag to look for one, didn't find anything, and proclaimed that she "definitely" didn't have anything. And Sarah and Yam Yam over on Tika certainly didn't appear worried enough about Josh finding one.

'Survivor' host Jeff Probst
'Survivor' host Jeff Probst

Robert Voets/CBS 'Survivor' host Jeff Probst

Which is absolutely, positively crazy. Because of course he had an idol. Of course they all had idols. Why? Because you need to think: WWJD? What Would Jeff Do? Or, more precisely, What Would Jeff Not Do? And here is something Jeff would not do as a producer: randomly send one person over to a new tribe without protection in the game. Yes, Survivor is a combination of skill and luck, and the more idols and advantages and tribe swaps you have, the more luck plays a part. But taking one person away from the tribe where they have built relationships and inserting them onto a tribe with zero relationships and just one day until the next Tribal Council is not something producers on this show would ever do.

The only way such a move can be considered even remotely fair is if the people being switched out get immunity, and that is exactly what happened. Look, I recognize that assuming what production is going to do is a dangerous game and has ended many a player's stay on the island, going all the way back to Shii Ann and the Thailand fake merge. But this is one case in which it would have been okay to assume what production would never do, and that is completely screw Josh, Jaime, and Carson over.

If Yam Yam and Sarah really considered Carolyn at the bottom of their pecking order, then they should have realized there was no way Josh was going home and made a genuine push to work with him — one that he would not have seen right through. Of course, that also would have been the worst thing imaginable, because it could have potentially ripped Carolyn from us way too early had she not used her own idol.

Losing Carolyn this early would have been a tragedy of Wanda Shirk proportions. Even the mere thought of it makes me start blurting out random noises and falling to the ground before awkwardly standing back up again. I don't know if Carolyn has been raiding the camera camp and liberating them of all their sweets, but I don't see how one person could have that much energy otherwise. Did Tika win an unaired coffee reward or something? Was there a six-pack of Jolt Cola with a side order of Lick-M-Aid Fun Dup in that birdcage that I didn't know about?

The crazy thing about Carolyn is that… she's not crazy! She's actually playing this game and playing it — dare I say — well. I didn't think there was any way in hell she was going to be able to keep the fact that she got the birdcage idol under wraps — especially with all those self-professed body language experts on Tika. But she did. I didn't think there was any way her tribe would actually fall for two sticks going all criss-cross applesauce on the birdcage. But they did. I didn't anticipate Carolyn would be savvy enough to get Josh to tell her about his idol without also blurting out that she also had one, figuring it would turn into a Survivor version of I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours. But she was savvy enough.

Carolyn Wiger on 'Survivor 44'
Carolyn Wiger on 'Survivor 44'

Robert Voets/CBS Carolyn Wiger on 'Survivor 44'

I've always said no player in Survivor history has combined game sense and nonsense better than Tony Vlachos, and that still holds true. But damn, if Carolyn has not been showing us something in these first few weeks. Losing her would have been a crime. And losing Yam Yam would not have been much better. For one thing, every season needs someone who refers to themselves in the third person, and Yam Yam is filling that quota quite admirably. Honestly, it should be a casting requirement. I actually should start doing that myself. And, with that, Dalton is now going to move on to the next paragraph.

There's a lot more I want to get into when it comes to the Carolyn and Yam Yam relationship, and we will do exactly that as we touch on the rest of episode 4 from Survivor 44.

Fake it Till You Make it

Once again, kudos to Carolyn for pulling off that highly suspect plan of using sticks to create an X on the birdcage and then another X by a log where she hid the fake immunity idol. The fact that both she and Danny were able to pull off the birdcage fake idols just makes me laugh, thinking about how producers must have been wanting to curl up into the fetal position and die after Brandon told everyone about his key and opened the birdcage in front of the entire tribe. You think about all the brainstorming sessions and then art department work to put that entire twist into play, and then he ruined it pretty much immediately. Hilarious.

I have seen some light complaining from folks about the fact that production is essentially now putting fake idols into play, instead of them being constructed organically by the players themselves. Here's an opinion from the national spokesperson for Severe Gastrointesstinal Distress.

I've gone on record as being a fan of the birdcages and I have no problems at all with how it is playing out. In fact, I think it's kind of awesome. But one thing I know Survivor producers like to do is look ahead. When they introduce a new element, they try to think not just about how it will play out in the short term, but what might that element look like down the road. And that's where I'm slightly concerned.

Part of the fun of immunity idols is the pageantry. The showmanship. The bravado. It's that moment when a player who everyone thinks is out the door all of a sudden stands up, walks over to Probst, and confidently hands over an idol with a look of supreme satisfaction on their face. It's fair then to wonder: Can that ever happen again after season 44?

Does Amanda Kimmel twirl her idol as she walks over to Probst if she now has no idea if any idol is real? Does Ben Driebergen brag about Ben Bombs if he's worried his bomb might be a dud? Does Rick Devens interrupt our regularly scheduled Tribal Council for a Breaking News Alert if he's concerned it could be fake news? My concern is that people will now never know if an idol is real or not, so they will start playing those could-be-or-couldn't-be idols tentatively.

Think of it this way: It's not exactly the best television if folks start walking up and saying, "Umm… gee, I don't know. This might be real. It might not be. Not really sure. Guess I'll play it and we'll see." You want boldness. You want cockiness. You want smug satisfaction. And that way, you get great TV if the idol is real, and even better TV if it is fake. If everyone starts hedging their bets and waffling and wavering, that makes not-as-good TV.

Look, I could be wrong. And you can certainly edit around some of that on television. But it is kind of like why I always argued against Redemption Island and the Edge of Extinction. The Tribal Council vote-out is the most important and dramatic moment of the episode. Anything that can possibly neuter or weaken that moment does a disservice to the show. Will that happen in the wake of Survivor 44? Possibly. As for this season, however? Love it.

Josh Wilder on 'Survivor 44'
Josh Wilder on 'Survivor 44'

Robert Voets/CBS Josh Wilder on 'Survivor 44'

Stay on Target

Hey! Look everyone, it's Stephen Fishbach's worst nightmare: attempting to hit a target via slingshot! Of even more note is that the aforementioned slingshotting took place in a reward challenge. That is not a misprint. Survivor went old school and actually gave us a two-challenge episode.

Playing for tarps, the tribes had to climb up a ladder and cross a cargo net up to a tower, where they would launch their sandbags. Clearly, the highlight was Carolyn missing repeatedly and yelling at each and every miss. And clearly — because I am a terrible human being and am endlessly entertained at the misery of others — the next most entertaining moment was watching Sarah faceplant on the cargo net. Anyway, Soka won (again) and Ratu took second place.

I'm generally a fan of two-challenge episodes, but I get why they don't do them on three-tribe seasons. When you only have two tribes you need to cover, you can spend enough time at both camps while also squeezing in two challenges and a Tribal Council. But throw in a third beach that needs to be covered, plus a trip to Neal Schon Island, and it usually ends up being not enough time.

Swap Meet

I already went on for way too long about how players were dumb for not assuming that everyone coming back from Steve Perry Island would have an idol. But as far as the game mechanic itself of sending Josh, Jaime, and Carson to new beaches… I like it! They all got idols, so they didn't get screwed. And it mixes things up for viewers. No complaints at all.

Oh, but poor Jaime. Every time she flashes that grin the size of the Boston Rob Island of the Idols statue and tells us how excited she is to have two immunity idols when we all know she actually only has one, my heart kind of drops. But again, because I am a terrible person who scarfs down Orville Redenbacher Ultimate Butter Microwave Popcorn by the handful while enjoying public humiliation way more than I should, I can't help but imagine the completely possible possibility that one of the most awkward moments in reality TV could be upon us.

You know what I'm talking about, don't you? And if you don't, you are about to get a serious case of the heebie-jeebies when I tell you. Soooooo, here's the thing: Jaime has two idols. One is real. One if fake. But she doesn't know that. So imagine Jaime's head is firmly placed in the guillotine at Tribal and she goes up to play an idol to save herself. But which idol will she play? If she plays the real one, then it's all good and then she uses the fake one later and discovers it's not real and everyone goes "hahaha" and has a good laugh and she's screwed.

That's probably what producers are hoping for. It's probably what most viewers are hoping for as well. But I am not most viewers. What I crave more than anything is televised awkwardness. Like, say, an unreciprocated high-five.

For me, the awkward gold at the end of the fake idol rainbow would be for her to play the fake idol first, be told it is fake, then get really confused, have everyone else go "hahaha" and have a good laugh… and then for her to have to go and rummage back in her bag and look for the second idol while everyone waits around for her to find it. Glorious.

As for the other swappers, Carson was smart upon arriving at Ratu to paint himself as on the outs on his previous tribe, and I have no idea what to make of Josh as a player. On one hand, he had a terrible read on his position in his previous tribe and did an awful job of trying to convince his new Tika teammates that he was not a surgeon. However, he did some fantastic work in identifying the proper pressure point on his new tribe and drawing Carolyn over to his side and away from Yam Yam and Sarah. He also appears to be the only person on this entire season of Survivor who knows how to dive into water.

Josh Wilder on 'Survivor 44'
Josh Wilder on 'Survivor 44'

Robert Voets/CBS Josh Wilder on 'Survivor 44'

The Wet Look

Did you all notice something about this immunity challenge that had folks jumping from a tower while grabbing a key in midair, crossing a balance beam, and then solving a manta ray puzzle? Those keys appeared a lot easier to grab than in seasons past. Don't let Lauren's miss fool you. I actually think she somehow managed to jump down instead of up.

Part of the fun of this challenge is watching the Adam Kleins of the world struggle time after time to get high enough for the key, but these keys appeared much closer and super easy to grab. Too easy, I would argue. But I still love a water challenge. The mixture of belly flops and awkward falls off balance beams is simply intoxicating.

Phony Baloney?

Tika lost the challenge, which was a bummer for them and a bummer for us in that it meant Carolyn and Yam Yam were both at risk of going home. And I can't stop thinking about those two and wondering what was really going on at that Tribal Council.

Until this episode, we thought this dynamic duo were big allies with a bond forged through being the self-proclaimed "old and crazy" members of the tribe. But here they were bickering. "No offense, they think I'm a threat and you're not," Yam Yam told Carolyn. "But don't get offended by that."

'It's all good, man," responded the clearly offended Carolyn. "It's not like the first time you've ever said that." Ooooooooookay, that drama ramped up from 0 to 60 pretty damn fast. Next thing we knew, Carolyn was telling us how she didn't feel tight with anyone in the tribe and was considering burning Yam Yam's trust.

And then something very interesting happened. It may not have even registered with most people because it was not accompanied by random grunts or her sitting down on the ground while talking to someone and then immediately standing back up, but Carolyn spoke about the internal debate she was having whether to be logical or emotional. And whether to stand up or sit back.

This is the exact dilemma every single Survivor player faces at pretty much every step of the game. The right strategic move you would make if watching from your couch with a cold Milwaukee's Best in hand is a lot harder to make when it means screwing over your new best friend out on the island. And that play that could stand out as a big move is also the thing that could immediately turn you into a big target. Look at the last three winners of this game: none of them made big splashy moves in the pre-merge portion of the game. If I was out there, I wouldn't either.

Carolyn Wiger and Sarah Wade on 'Survivor 44'
Carolyn Wiger and Sarah Wade on 'Survivor 44'

CBS Carolyn Wiger and Sarah Wade on 'Survivor 44'

"I did not come out here to be told what every plan was," Carolyn told us. "That's not going to get me anywhere." Timing is everything in Survivor, and figuring out the right time to make that switch from passenger to driver often ends up being a million-dollar decision.

Crap, I got sidetracked. Sorry, it happens. Back to Carolyn and Yam Yam. They were getting into it at Tribal Council — talking about kids in classrooms and trying to figure out who was Felicia. But what I kept wondering was: Is this real or an act? Yam Yam told Josh they were all voting Carolyn out, so was he merely playing up his disagreement with her? And was Carolyn playing it up so Yam Yam and Sarah would think she was just going along with the plan and was still with them when she actually flipped?

The fact that at one point she said, "Oh, yeah, just put me out of my misery" when she was pretty clear she was not going anywhere tells me that clearly not everything being said here was on the level. Either way, it should be fascinating to see how those two get along back at camp.

Speaking of the Tika camp, we've got some goodies for you, including an exclusive deleted scene of Carolyn trying to mend fences with Sarah that you can check out. And speaking of Sarah, we've got my chat with the eliminated contestant right here. Oh, and I also asked the entire cast to name the most underrated Survivor players ever, and their answers are very telling. Oh, and did you hear thayt Probst and producers have at least talked about doing a Survivor: The Next Generation season? It's true! To keep track of all my Survivor coverage follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and I'll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy. Dalton is now done writing his recap.

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