Survivor 45 — Super Late Season Finale Recap (and Full Season Review)

jfish
22 min readJan 31, 2024

And that’s a wrap on Survivor 45 over a month after it aired. I apologize for my tardiness in getting this out. With Christmas, the New Year, a bunch of drama with car repairs, an insane work schedule, and a little bit of writer’s block, I couldn’t get this post out as fast as I wanted to. But, I didn’t want to let my thoughts go to waste, so I’m still going to dive into what happened and also give some season-wide opinions.

Complete Chaos Averted by Katurah’s Million Dollar Decision

What could have been a simple final five vote ended up getting turned on its head right after Austin (against all odds) chose to take Jake on reward after winning the first immunity challenge of the episode. Jake decided to tell Austin while eating a Sanctuary meal that he had found the immunity idol and is prepared to save himself tonight. An odd decision by Jake to remove secrecy of what could have been a big idol play at tribal council, but the consequences of his loose lips ended up having the desired outcome, because the new unexpected variable felt the Reba three scramble and ultimately on different pages. Dee took the simple route and stuck to voting Katurah out as the obvious secondary option, and insisted her allies did the same. But that’s not what happened: Julie determined that Jake was bluffing an idol and voted for him anyway. Austin decided to vote on Julie and go along with Jake’s original plan they discussed at the reward. But unbeknownst to the Reba trio, Katurah and Jake had a discussion and swore on whatever was required to confirm a new blindside plan: vote Dee out, the quiet favorite to make the end and win.

Everything ended up playing out perfectly for a wild blindside. Each Reba castaway voted on a different competitor, giving Jake and Katurah the power to vote out whoever they wanted… if they stuck together. At the last second, Katurah switched her vote away from Dee and onto Julie. It was confusing why Katurah didn’t stick to her plan, and the answer is as simple as Katurah panicking under the pressure. Going into the episode Katurah was dead set on breaking up the Austin-Dee pair before going into the final four. But she worried that Jake lied about voting Dee with her and that she would be out of the loop looking stupid in an important vote. So Katurah inferred that Julie would be most likely to go home other than her, so she threw her vote in that direction. While Julie did go home by her vote, it did not look like an intentional game move and the person Katurah knew was a bigger threat stayed in the game.

Katurah certainly regretted it, and at final four she knew she was sentenced to death. Katurah’s fire making skills were non-existent and with Dee and Austin so clearly and madly in love with each other (like, I mean there’s no way they aren’t together now and there couldn’t possibly be any drama?!?), she had few paths to being taken to final tribal council. When Dee won the final challenge, she didn’t think twice about taking Austin with her and Jake handily beat Katurah in firemaking. Katurah can at least go home happy that she did not stay in her box as prime Bruce-hater. She worked well enough within the game to stick around to the final four without having tangible power in the strategies.

I feel bad about not having much of a eulogy for Julie for her final appearance, but that’s how things work when the final five is an actually interesting and unpredictable vote, and not like the past few seasons where it’s really obvious who needs to be sent home before the firemaking. For a tertiary character Julie was enjoyable, and it’s a bit disappointing that her spotlight was limited in the season.

Jake Finally Gets to Win One

In a surprising turn of events, the true scene stealer (and I’d argue main character) of the finale ended up being Jake. His season-long story of wanting to make an impact on the game but having things go wrong was turned up to eleven this episode, but at least the poor guy got to succeed once before making it to day 26. Somehow Jake found new ways to fail in this finale. He bungled multiple parts of the final five challenge, so despite gaining a challenge advantage using his knowledge of Survivor winners he lost to Austin. Then he has his best chance to make a big move with his idol but mismanages his idol. I get why Jake would reveal the information as a bargaining chip, but what he thought would be a secret between him and Austin became public knowledge immediately, nerfing his chance at making a successful big move. Then Jake tries to pull a shock idol play on Katurah, but he mismanages her nerves and misses his final chance to look good in front of the jury.

Then in the final four challenge Jake is competing for the win neck and neck with Dee in the difficult stacking challenge. Jake makes a mistake and knocks over his tower, losing all his progress, then because he was “rushing” to start over he breaks the challenge apparatus and gets a rare disqualification. Let’s be real though, Jake was frustrated that he once again made a big mistake and while I won’t go as far to say he broke the challenge on purpose, he definitely didn’t care if the tripwire contraption fell apart. Twenty-five days of failure manifested in that moment and Jake’s emotion once again boiled over.

Thankfully for Jake, Dee won the final challenge and was more than happy to accommodate his final request: redemption in firemaking. This was the last opportunity for Jake to get a Survivor win… not a million-dollar win, but an opportunity at moral victory. Making it to the final tribal council on his own power, and not taken as a goat, meant too much for Dee to deny. Jake got it done and handily beat Katurah in firemaking, completing the 26-day journey of self-reflection he unexpectedly found himself on.

In a way Jake has done successfully what other recent goats have not been able to do: be rootable despite his poor gameplay. Romeo from Survivor 42 and Owen from Survivor 43 were both major goats in recent seasons and while the show committed to spinning a poor game of Survivor into something positive, both these castaways fell flat as a “good goat” character. Romeo’s strategic cluelessness was too apparent and made any time he insisted he could win sound like a joke. Owen resigned himself to the goat role around the final eight and it turned him into Survivor dead weight from an entertainment standpoint because he never even attempted to change his fate. In contrast, Jake worked tirelessly to change his fate and made me want to believe that he could do the impossible and win, which is a huge accomplishment once you know the result of the season.

In retrospect, it’s crazy to think that Jake, who consistently failed to make his strategies work, had any shot to win against two strong, likable players who dominated the season in a powerful alliance. All this has to be attributed to both his charming Bostonian personality and his unbelievable passion for the game, and production doubled down on these infectious characteristics to turn a Survivor goat into a believable jury threat. All the effort Jake put into trying to turn his luck around, while simultaneously being aware and vulnerable about rehashing his personal expectations for what his Survivor experience would be made for refreshing TV from a character archetype that has historically only worked when you made fun of him or her.

The Two Lovebirds Have to Duel

In the end, Jake got to the final and was the goat for Dee and Austin, like we should have expected. It was quickly established early in the final tribal council that the jury was considering whether to give the boyfriend or the girlfriend a million dollars. While the two lovebirds (who must still be in love because this is a very real relationship) are clearly close, they both maintained the competitive edge that we saw in their relationship and agreed that they wouldn’t back down and let the other waltz to the win.

Going into this final episode it felt like Dee’s resume would make it a cakewalk to convince the jury that she should win, but she got off to a very weak start in the final tribal council that opened the door for Austin to steal a victory. Overall, I’d even say that Austin had the better final tribal council when it came to laying out his case to win. Dee fell into the age-old trap of relying on amorphous emotional grandstanding rather than pulling directly from the facts of what she did in the game. Austin gave clear and concise answers as to how his actions over the twenty-six days helped him get to the very end. I also thought Dee looked a little nervous, no example better than when Emily asked for a game move where head prevailed over heart, and Dee for some reason gave some vague answer about how heart was always a part of her decisions. A cute answer, but odd because Dee’s blindside of Drew and Austin was a home run response that she for some reason forgot about. Could be an edit moment where production didn’t show the whole answer to make things look closer or could be nerves and overthinking the FTC.

On the back end of the final tribal council Dee started to hit her stride. It’s a credit to the final three she had concocted. Her strongest moves in the game coincide with Austin’s biggest mistakes which clearly gave her a leg up. Austin certainly had a good case to win with a strong early and mid-game, but his developing feelings for Dee clouded his judgement and caused mistakes at the end. He was still able to win the votes of Drew, Kendra, and Bruce… but the game narrative, resume, and friendly jury members Dee amassed throughout the twenty-six days secured her the other five votes.

Dee Valladares, the Black Widow Prevails

It was a well-deserved victory for our favorite travel influencer. Dee pulled off something that few winners have been able to do in the new school era: spend the whole season as a frontrunner and finish the job at the end. Dee made an early alliance with Julie, then Austin, then Drew, dubbed the “Reba Four”. Dee was a key voice in that alliance in the original Reba tribe, and again after a fortunate tribe swap kept her in a majority position. She was protected enough to be the person who voted Sifu yet never get found out. Once merged, Dee with the Reba Four solidified their power in the game with a huge blindside of Kellie that crippled any resistance that could form against them. Dee often got her way within the Reba alliance, calling for the exits of Sifu and Kendra, which made her a threat in the eyes of many starting at the final ten.

Dee separated herself from the rest of her alliance and made winning moves at the final seven and six. Dee’s number one ally Julie was going to be blindsided, but because of the bond she had formed with Austin she was let in on the plan, which allowed her to sabotage it to save Julie. Then Dee parlayed saving Julie with getting the strategic bottom feeders Katurah and Jake on board for a complete blindside of Drew. Dee rode the wave of momentum to the end and had a fantastic resume to earn a million dollars.

Of course, we know that Dee’s social game was strong as she was kept relatively safe with major alliance members, while also making a good impression on the ladies she wasn’t directly aligned with. She could push for people to be voted out without her alliance getting salty, and she went into final five with two castaways in Julie and Austin who were 100% taking her with them. But let’s not forget how dominant she was in some of these challenges, which takes her up a notch as a talented Survivor player. She was incredibly dominant in balance-focused challenges, smoking the competition in her three individual immunity wins. Being able to win challenges makes a strong social player even more lethal, and Dee proved exactly why she should be considered the strongest all-around player of the season and one of the strongest female players in the new era.

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The Returner Heat Check

DEFINITELY GETTING A SECOND SEASON: Emily, Kaleb

There’s no better ticket for a second season of Survivor than being the lone bright spots on an all-time bad tribe.

POSSIBLE TO RETURN: Dee, Kellie, Drew, Austin

The key characters (sorry Julie) of the Reba alliance all have unique character qualities that necessitate bringing them back on for a second season. And nothing screams production favorite more than getting an insane amount of reaction shots while you are on the jury… though Kellie’s gameplay and big blindside are reason enough for a second chance.

UNLIKELY TO RETURN, BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE: Kendra, Bruce, Katurah, Jake

Kendra is certainly a character, but Carolyn blocks her out of the spot as the wacky girl stereotype on a returners season. Bruce has already had two seasons technically, and while he was a villain on Survivor 45, I don’t think he gets a third spot on a season of Survivor with so many who have only been part of one cast. Jake and Katurah as characters are worthy enough to get a callback, but I think their games were not strong enough strategically to be picked over others who played better.

THE GAMECHANGERS HALI FORD ZONE (IF THEY DID RETURN, WE’D ASK WHY): Sabiyah, Sifu, Julie

These three had a moment or two during the season, but nothing interesting enough to deserve spots in a returner cast.

NO WAY: Brandon, Brando, J. Maya, Hannah, Sean

Non-factors on the season (Brando and J.Maya), quitters (Hannah and Sean), and then Brandon, whose performance was too pathetic to be considered.

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Since I procrastinated my final writeup on Survivor 45 for such a long time, I thought it fitting to also give extended thoughts on the season as a whole, in the form of a season review.

Survivor 45 Review

In the modern era there is very little to separate one season from the next, due to the lack of location changes and season themes. Survivor 45 got a rare opportunity to buck the “season sameness” trend and to flex a little good press with a simple but newsworthy change rarely seen in Survivor history: the weekly 90 minute episode. Survivor has always been a sixty minute show in its history except for Winners at War (the biggest but not best season in Survivor history), so for a normal season to get the extended episode treatment, even if the primary reason for the change is a need to fill airtime during a writer’s strike, is a big deal. What would the show do with its extra time, and will it make the season better?

The ninety minute product was a giant success and breathed new life into new era Survivor. The extended time allowed for the show to give us a better picture of the social and strategic workings of the game at a comfortable pace. But what makes this season great is caused by something different… more than just adding 30 minutes to an episode. Survivor 45, more than any other new era season, found the right balance in tone for the show’s current iteration. Game strategy was still a primary focus, but not at the sacrifice of less serious camp life scenes and relationship moments. Twists were plentiful, but not overwhelming and at the loss of game integrity. Stories were inspirational, but player charm and personality were not pushed to the side for one-dimensional portrayals. And the show kept things light and fun, but didn’t treat its adult viewers like children.

The cast and how they played the game certainly bolstered things. This group of castaways was a well-rounded group and light on meaningless or forgettable characters. Just about everyone brought something unique to the season… even the few castaways who turned out to be dead weight or infuriating at least kept us entertained. Of course there were a few stars in the cast (none more than Emily) but unlike Survivor 44’s Tika Three, there were more than three people to be invested in, and a fan could pick and choose who to cheer for and against.

On top of that the game stayed interesting with blindsides and shocking moments. Picking my top ten moments was actually a difficult task, not only because it felt like there were more than ten worthy moments, but the ones I did pick felt equally cool or important so it was hard to pin down a ranking. Overall, Survivor 45 revived a lot of what makes Survivor so great and I’m more excited than ever going into the next season.

RATING: 4 OUT OF 5

I don’t want to overreact, but this season more than any other post-covid season felt like a complete package. Not necessarily an all-time season, but one that I can see myself wanting to come back to for a rewatch.

Top Ten Moments on Survivor 45

10. The “Boys Day Together” Montage

This Survivor moment where the show prepped a montage of malnourished guys being dudes to the tune of Top Gun while the girls are on reward was campy, but a whole lot of fun. The montage represented what I thought Survivor 45 did right by highlighting the little, fun, ultimately meaningless moments of camp life that give castaways personality. I could think of other tiny bits of camp life that, while not important enough to crack the top ten moments of the season, have stuck in my memory (like Kendra just making random dog and cat noises around camp… like why a person would do that…. Also when Jeff Probst pulled out a knife during the rice negotiation and stabbed the bag… unexpectedly fun!). The boy’s day Top Gun montage holds the torch for all those little moments.

9. Katurah Hates Bruce

One of the most passionate one-sided beefs in Survivor’s history. Literally Katurah’s entire personality for the first half of the season was how much Bruce’s corny antics bothered her. And boy did she give the producers plenty of tape to use in the final edit. It could become a drinking game to take a shot whenever Katurah gives an eye roll or a dirty look at a classic Bruce antic.

8. Dee Manipulates Austin in Two Huge Votes

Who doesn’t love a Survivor love story? But the twist this season: what if we get a strategically manipulative love story? While Austin and Dee’s personal relationship grew the later we got into the show, their strategic relationship was a bit more one-sided. The moment where Dee was faced with the exact situation as her island BF Austin was, where she had to decide whether to leak a strategic plan to someone she cared about, but she chose to act opposite of Austin, was a signature move and signature moment in the season.

7. Sabiyah Has to Melt Out Her Idol at Tribal Council, But is Promptly Voted Out

The wacky idol hijinks record was held by Cody, the king of L I V I N, before Survivor 45 started… remember when he had to convince his tribemates to give him beads for a palm-frond hat so that he could activate an idol and avoid losing his vote in an important tribal council? Well, I think Sabiyah having to MELT HER HIDDEN IDOL OUT OF A WAX STATUE AT TRIBAL COUNCIL gives Cody a run for the “batshit crazy new era twist moment” crown. The most hilarious part? Sabiyah had to gamble her vote to actually activate the idol beyond that tribal council, and she ended up getting blindsided out of the game instead. A cruel, but funny, twist of fate.

And the fact this is number seven in top moments proves that this was a good season… this would easily be top five or even top three in Survivor 41 or 43.

6. Not-So-Fun Uncle Bruce is Voted Out Holding the Idol

One whimsical man ended up being on Fiji’s most wanted list by the time he got voted out. Turns out he was less the “fun uncle” and more the “socially inept stepfather”. But try as they might, Bruce found a hidden immunity idol and then won multiple individual immunities in a row, all while continuing to rub his allies the wrong way. Bruce treasured his alliance with Kellie, while Kellie was this close to cutting off her ears just so she didn’t have to listen to Bruce mansplain her one more strategic plan. But the irony is, even though Bruce knew nobody wanted him in the game, he fell for the honeyed words and false promises of Emily and walked out of the game with the idol in his pocket.

5. The Survivor Auction Returns

In the older seasons, the Survivor Auction was a moment of respite from the harsh conditions of island life for some fun over tasty meals. As the game evolved, the auction became an exercise in restraint to spend all of your money on an advantage, and production ultimately decided to nix the tradition. For Survivor 45, fans were cautiously optimistic about the challenge returning, hoping for a good time devoid of some twist that would bring a sour taste to the proceedings. I personally felt the auction was a success, as the challenge ended up being light and fun and the grand twist only encourage people to spend their money more. Austin eating a fisheye certainly was the highlight I remember.

4. Kaleb’s Shot in the Dark Negates Every Vote

Shot in the Dark’s dice-roll-luck-based mechanic does put an asterisk on Kaleb getting the record of most votes negated in a tribal council with twelve. But even with the asterisk, Survivor history is certainly fun to watch. Time will tell if this tribal council will sit in a pantheon with other amazing Survivor moments. But leaving this season, the craziness of a long shot twist actually coming through in a clutch situation needs to be celebrated… even if Kaleb went home the next episode anyway.

3. Kellie Gets Blindsided

The biggest blindside in Survivor 45 certainly earns its spot as a top five moment. It was a huge move and defined how the strategy would play out in the post-merge second-third portion of the game. Kellie gave a worthy shocked reaction to said blindside. And don’t forget Jake, who gave an equally worthy shocked reaction to not being the one blindsided. Also, this was the conclusion of Austin’s sandwich revenge tour, and it could not have been more satisfying.

2. The Worst First Impression for a Single Castaway in Survivor History

How to be an iconic Survivor castaway — a twenty step plan.

Step 1: Apply to be on your favorite show

Wait…

Step 0: Hire former Survivor winner Adam Klein to coach you on how to get casted on your favorite show

Step 1: Apply to be on your favorite show

Step 2: Impress in interviews, get casted (money well spent)

Step 3: Fly out to Fiji

Step 4: Get on the boat, season starts

Step 5: Cry as soon as possible when Jeff asks you a question

Step 6: Get stuck on a simple rope ladder during the challenge, look especially unathletic in the process

Step 7: Have a panic attack afterwards

Step 8: Arrive at camp later than everyone else due to said panic attack

Step 9: Bond with mentally spiraling tribemate, create cringey chant about doing hard things

Step 10: Do really bad in first immunity challenge so tribe loses

Step 11: Cry more about how bad this is going, ask production for some Tums to soothe convenient acid reflux and tell people that you want to quit

Step 12: Secretly affirm the fears of your mentally spiraling tribemate so she quits instead and the tribe can’t vote you out first (no one wants to be a first boot)

Step 13: Find an idol because you are a superfan

Step 14: Give away the idol to your ally because it is a beware idol (and why would your tribe vote you out at this point?)

Step 15: Try to redeem yourself by going on the summit journey for an advantage

Step 16: Risk your vote, but lose the summit game and get no advantage

Step 17: Tell your tribe the truth that you sucked and lost your vote

Step 18: Do bad in another challenge and lose immunity for your tribe

Step 19: Beg to people that you can be a useful pawn so they don’t vote you out

Step 20: Get voted out anyway, but let everyone know you love the game

And now you are an iconic castaway. Brandon certainly won’t be forgotten by Survivor fans anytime soon.

1. The Lulu Tribe Trainwreck

Way out in the future when an AI Jeff Probst is hosting Survivor 80 (still in Fiji of course), show fans will still remember Survivor 45’s Lulu tribe as the most dysfunctional to ever show up on the island. Day one this tribe consisted of a nerdy superfan in the middle of his twenty step plan to icon status, a girl mentally shutting down because she wants a cheeseburger and a nicotine patch, a major bitch who’s picked three fights and concocted seven blindside plans in one day with zero allies, a woman who’s spouting alien conspiracies about the pyramids and is fighting with the major bitch, a gay man who is gay, and Kaleb, who is apparently the only one on Lulu who knows how to play Survivor.

This whole tribe will need a deep rewind one day. Two quitters. One all-time bad castaway who wasn’t one of the quitters. One all-time bad castaway who redeemed herself and became not only a fan-favorite, but a strong Survivor strategist. One castaway that was voted out with an idol in her pocket (that she had to MELT OUT OF A WAX STATUE AT TRIBAL COUNCIL). And one castaway who did a lot of hand-talking and oh by the way, was the first to successfully use Shot in the Dark in the show’s history. It was a wonderful mess to watch and will be remembered for many years to come.

All-Outwit Team

Dee — She was a deserving winner, with a well-balanced social and strategic game throughout the season. I said my piece about her earlier.

Austin — While he chose to simp for a girl with big toes instead of striving for the million dollars at the very end, his game up to the final seven was very strong. Austin had secured a strong alliance and multiple advantages that elevated his position in the game, all while feeling untouchable with a safe alliance.

Drew — It can be easy to rag on Drew because he is a nerdy superfan and a Survivor mansplainer, but I can’t deny that he was pushing forward the strategy in his alliance, being the main voice in the Kellie blindside and being a big enough threat to demand betrayal at the final six. He certainly used his nerdy charm to his advantage.

Emily — Her 180 turnaround from easy first boot to swing vote in Lulu to major strategist in the post-merge is to be commended. She found her groove in the final eight when she finessed Bruce to hold onto his idol on his elimination night. But Emily played too safe as the pressure amped up, and was sent home as collateral in the final seven when she could have risked it for immunity just a day before..

Kellie — The best strategist on the Belo tribe was Kellie, who was friends with everyone there and could swing the numbers whichever way she wanted in the pre-merge. She unfortunately got dragged down by Bruce and it left her vulnerable to a blindside once the game became individual.

All-Outplay Team

Emily — There was a worry after Emily’s horrendous first episode that she would have to sacrifice her biting sarcasm and nihilism in order to get further in the game, and that it would make her less fun as an entertainer and potential villain. It turned out that Emily being a little nicer could make her actually become the hero of the season, while keeping some of the witty sarcastic commentary she left unchecked on day one.

Jake — The “goat who loves the game too much to quit” storyline just worked for me. It also helps that Jake was someone that surprised me with the amount of personality and humor he brought to the table. The Boston charm was in full effect.

Bruce — His constant dad joke behavior paired with how much his tribe hated him made Bruce a breath of fresh air in a world where the modern villain tamely plays devil’s advocate in a game when being super nice is the new meta to going far. Bruce didn’t even realize he was drawing the ire of countless tribemates. He probably thought he was playing a grandmaster level game, which is what makes for the most compelling castaways.

Kaleb — I begrudgingly acknowledge that despite not being a fan of Kaleb, he does earn his spot as one of the most entertaining players of the season (if I was biased I’d put Austin here instead). His role in Lulu as the one good Survivor player on the tribe which morphed into being the ultra-threatening pariah of the post-merge is a worthy storyline for him. He was well-spoken and served as a solid narrator for the first half of the season.

Kendra — I think I need to give my laurels to Kendra and her “quirkiness” and what it brought to Survivor 45. In the moment, it was easy to write off Kendra as a Carolyn clone, given that they fall into the same Survivor archetype and Carolyn was such a dominant focus last season. But Kendra deserves to be her own person, and I need to celebrate how frickin weird this girl was. And I think I can still get plenty of mileage out of Kendra’s matter of fact horoscope declarations for plenty of blog posts to come. Very Libra of me to reconsider my own All-Outplay team and make a last second change.

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Ok. I’ve officially closed the door on Survivor 45. And now that my life seems to be getting a little less hectic I’m hoping that I can fit in a non-Survivor post or two before the Survivor 46 cast drops and the season starts on February 28th. Maybe I lock in on the Challenge 39 and see how the season is going (I’ve only watched up to the episode before returning champs come back as mercenaries). I also want to write about another reality competition show I’ve been watching that airs on Peacock… I certainly have thoughts and opinions on that show.

My promise to you is that once Survivor 46 has started, I will be back to the weekly recaps. I’m excited and recharged to get back to the show I love again.

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jfish

Reality TV connoisseur writing about the shows I like, especially Survivor. I also watch the Challenge, the Bachelor, Love is Blind, and more.