“Survivor” 45: Thoughts at the Merge

November 2, 2023

BY Eric Rezsnyak

This week CBS’s venerable “Survivor” hit the tribe merge, the unofficial halfway point of the season where the game shifts from tribe-based to individual play. For weeks I have been defending the season, saying that while it had its problems — massive problems — there were still enough intriguing subplots, still enough potential in the players, that I wasn’t ready to write it off just yet.

I am now ready to call it: “Survivor 45” is a bad season. SPOILERS AHOY!

The season started out inauspiciously, specifically because of one tribe: Lulu, which more than lived up to its name. Even before the survivors left the boat that brought them to their Fijian island home for the next 26 days, things were going sideways. Polarizing contestant Emily came in hot, suggesting that returning player Bruce (he was pulled from Season 44 on Day 1 after a major injury) was being pedantic and disingenuous (spoiler: Emily was probably right). And then in the initial challenge, her teammate Brandon had a literal panic attack, leaving him incapable of even basic tasks like climbing a ladder.

Things did not get better at Lulu camp, where another tribe member, Hannah, said off the bat that she hated everything about the experience — which she elected to go on, beating out thousands of other applicants for one of the 18 spots on the cast — and when Lulu inevitably lost the first elimination challenge and went to Tribal Council, she full-on quit the game in one of the most embarrassing runs in “Survivor” history.

But the embarrassment kept coming, especially at Lulu, as Emily continued to alienate herself from the rest of her tribe with her aggressive personal interactions; Brandon continued to be a human anchor dragging the team down until he was blessedly voted out; and tribe power player Sabiyah overplaying her hand and went home with a hidden immunity idol in her pocket (and it was a whole journey for her just to GET the idol). All told, the first FOUR eliminated players from this season were on Team Lulu, and of them 3 ostensibly quit. (Brandon tried to quit at the first tribal, but Hannah out-quit him; Sean quit after the Episode 4 tribe swap that left him on the outs of his new tribe, and rather than play the game he signed up for, begged his new tribe to send him home at the last minute, blowing up the game plan they had going into tribal, and doing damage to at least one player’s strategic game.)

Much and more has been said on the internet about the cast this season, and here at Great Pop Culture Debate, we agree. On our Discord server (which you can join if you’re a Patreon supporter at the $10/month level or higher) we discuss every “Survivor” episode, every week. And we have been truly gobsmacked at the buffoonery, and especially the immaturity of this cast. GPCD panelist Joelle Boedecker realized that of the 16 cast member this season, 11 — 11! — were between the ages of 22 and 28, making this an exhaustively Gen Z cast. And because the cast is so ovherwelmingly Gen Z, and they’ve been doing so overwhelmingly poorly, it has turned into a running condemnation of that generation in particular. (FWIW: An additional 5 cast members are below the age of 34; only two are older than 45.)

While “NuSurvivor” — the retooled version of the game that launched after the pandemic — has focused intensely on diversity in it casts (which we fully support!), age diversity is also an important factor to a good cast. This cast has basically none. And in my opinion, the overwhelming number of cast members below the age of 30 has absolutely broken this season. I honestly don’t see how it can fix itself.

Part of this season’s biggest problems — setting aside the legendarily poor performance of the Lulu tribe, which was the dominant plotline of the first half of the season — is that nobody is playing the game. Multiple cast members have alluded to things like “civilized scrambles” and group decisions to not hunt for immunity idols — or hunting for them AS an entire group, so that no one person gets a secret advantage. In post-boot interviews, eliminated contestants referred to people wanting to play an “honest game” of “Survivor” this season.

Um, guys. That isn’t “Survivor.” I don’t know what game that is, but it’s not “Survivor.” Literally nobody wants to watch that. We are not here to watch you have a breakdown because you’re an idiot who didn’t bother quitting smoking before going to a deserted island. We do not tune in to watch you all go hunting together for an advantage that nobody can really use. We are here to see alliances form, deteriorate, and betray one another. We are here to see clever strategies for getting deeper in the game. We are here to see shocking moments caused by advantages. We are here to see people COMPETE.

To be blunt: these kids are tender. They are not strategic. They are not competitive. They are complacent and they are boring, and I really don’t think most of them have it in themselves to show up in a way that viewers are particularly interested in watching.

Why do I think that? Let’s take a look at who is left post-merge:

Austin: Initially I had high hopes for Austin, who is one of the few physical powerhouses this season — I also noted early on this is one of the physically weakest casts this game has ever had — and he made some strong alliances on Reba before the tribe swap. But whatever goodwill I had toward Austin dissipated in the past two episodes. Austin was sent on one of those select tribe-member journeys in which 3 cast members had to vote between two options: amulets that bestowed advantages (it’s a complicated system), or a plate of sandwiches. Austin literally wanted to have a sandwich instead of an advantage in this game, which is spectacularly stupid. Even worse: he has targeted the other two women who pushed for the amulets strictly out of petty revenge for denying him a sandwich. Is Subway sponsoring this man? What is with the obsession with sandwiches? I get that he’s hungry but YOU ARE ON “SURVIVOR.” You don’t eat! It’s kind of part of the deal. Embarrassing! You could give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was targeting J. Maya and Kellie because if they get eliminated, his amulet gets more power. But he has said explicitly in interviews this is revenge for a sandwich denied, and I am literally so embarrassed for him. So embarrassed!

Bruce: I see why they brought back Bruce. He is a Personality. I’m not saying he has a good personality — he does not. But he plays to the cameras. I would say that Bruce is getting a bad edit, but most of the players by the merge were pretty much over him. It’s easy to see why. He’s condescending. He’s cringe. He is paranoid and swinging wildly when it comes to strategic moves. I think at this point he may be closer to a goat than the GOAT I think he fancies himself to be. Not a fan.

Dee: Dee is one of the few I think could actually play real “Survivor,” not whatever training-wheels version this season is. Dee IS strategic. Dee IS thinking about alliances and going deep in the game. My issue is, people seem to realize this about Dee, but nobody is saying/doing anything about it. This week’s tribal was a prime opportunity for someone, anyone playing the game to put Dee’s name forward. She has a significant alliance that she is either running or directing. She was one of the 6 up for elimination. And yet they took out…J? Who was in no way a threat? How is that helping anyone’s game?

Drew: Oh this one thinks he is this Machiavellian strategy god. I don’t see it. I don’t see cunning. I see someone who is absolutely certain in his genius but who has done very little to earn that sense of satisfaction. I’m sure they cast Drew as a big player, but again: I just don’t see it.

Emily: After one of the worst starts in recent memory, Emily has actually become not only the castaway I am rooting for, but also a great story of tenacity and making moves behind the scenes. I certainly hope that Kaleb understands that at this point, his alliance with Emily has benefitted him more than it has benefitted HER, because she has quite literally saved him from being snuffed not once but TWICE. That was all Emily, not Kaleb. Those were deliberate moves that she made. My hope is that Emily can continue to figure out a way to get to the middle of this pack, and ride it out until Final Tribal, because i think she has an absolutely spectacular “Survivor” journey to sell to the jury. But given that certain people were trying to push her out in this week’s tribal, when she has very little personal power in the game at this point, I’m very concerned for her.

Jake: I cannot think of a single strategic move Jake has made thus far. He’s aligned with Bruce, which I consider to be the opposite of strategic. Aside from his medical issues, he’s not much of an entity. And he sure isn’t a threat at this point.

Julie: Dee’s No. 2. Do I think she is concerned with strategy? Yes. Have I gotten the sense she’s not super good at thinking about the long game? Also yes. In the Dee/Julie/Austin/Drew alliance, I’m not really sure what she’s bringing to the table. In the vote that SHOULD have taken out Sifu — which would have been a good move even if he didn’t have a hidden idol — Julie was the one most against it, instead committing to picking off Sean, who was already dead in the water. Again, just not thoughtful, interesting gameplay. And she’s one of the older ones, so she should know better.

Kaleb: The other person actively playing this game, but probably too hard. Kaleb’s threat level is overwhelming his game at this point, and he narrowly avoided the merge boot thanks to dumb luck via the Shot in the Dark (the first successfully played one in “Survivor” history?). I don’t know how much longer he can reliably dodge the bullets, unless he successfully gasses up someone else’s threat levels. He made a clumsy attempt at doing that at tribal, and it backfired on him bigtime. Can he learn from that mistake? We’ll see.

Katurah: I really like Katurah, and I want to see her in the mix, but she feels very much on the outs. I am hopeful that now that they are in the individual phase she will start making some moves to align with others outside the major alliances, but my fear right now is that we’re too far into the game, and she has no really strong alliances that I am aware of. Maybe they aren’t showing us important information. But I’m concerned for her.

Kellie: She’s strategic. She’s playing a long game. She has made good alliances. Her threat level is minimal. But she needs to start building her resume. Help me, Kellie. You’re my only hope.

Kendra: A great “Survivor” character, who is unraveling — but in a fun way — as the weeks go by. I don’t think she’s a strategic player, and she doesn’t seem to have a pulse as to what is really going on in the game. But her reaction faces? Priceless.

Sifu: Absolutely not.

What are your thoughts about “Survivor 45”? Are you enjoying the season? If not, do you think it can turn itself around post-merge? Drop your thoughts in the comments.

To see GPCD Panelists’ Fancast for the next “Survivor” returnee season, click here.

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