[Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for the premiere episode of Survivor Season 44.]
Shortly before joining his Tika tribe on the trek to tribal council in the Season 44 premiere, law student Kane expressed what may well be the mantra of the modern version of Survivor: "I came here to play the game." There is no such thing as slow-playing Survivor anymore. The seasons are shorter, the advantages are more plentiful, every social interaction seems more fraught with peril. And most pertinently, the players have all spent the last 20 years watching this show and dreaming of getting out on that island to make Parvati-sized big moves. Nobody wants to go home without making the most out of their moment.
"I came here to play the game" is how we end up with a tribal council where four advantages are played, knocking out five of the six possible votes, and ultimately allowing security specialist Brandon to cast the lone vote and eliminate charity projects manager Maddy. It's also, in a way, how we wind up with three medical interventions within the first episode of the season.
On some level there is nothing you can do about injuries. Bruce took a bad angle into the mud crawl and bashed his head against a wooden beam, drawing blood and possibly concussing himself. After an initial medical checkup revives Bruce, seemingly sending him on his way, he takes a turn for the worse on Night 1 and has to be pulled from the game. Similarly, Brandon being overcome by heat and dehydration during the immunity challenge isn't unprecedented on the show; thankfully he's able to sit out, rest up, and seems to be fine.
Then there's Matthew, the gruff-looking but tender-hearted gay dad from Ohio who tries to climb a rock in a rush of "make every moment count" adventurism, only to fall backwards, dislocate his shoulder, and cut himself in a few places, including one on his foot that feels like an invitation for infection given his current living conditions. To his credit, Matthew owns up to his moment of hubris. "I want so much from this journey," he says tearfully. "And I don't want my own stupidity to take me out. And I know better. I just got ahead of myself." Deeply relatable, but also symptomatic of "I came here to play the game" syndrome.
Survivor certainly encourages playing the game at high volume every moment, as personified by Jeff Probst. The show has increasingly taken on a Probst-like, hyper-enthused tone in recent years, including an avalanche of immunity idols and advantages that essentially demand to be played as aggressively as possible. In this premiere alone, three advantages were acquired, not to mention the Shot in the Dark dice roll that each player gets to deploy once a season, sacrificing their vote in a Tribal for a 1-in-6 chance at immunity. All of this sets the stage for the wildest first Tribal Council in series history.
With the Ratu tribe heading into the vote, things are setting up along fairly typical lines, with trust being the sticking point. Matthew is given some information by rival tribe member Claire that leads him to believe (correctly) that elementary school teacher Lauren was lying about not getting an advantage on her excursion to the lonely hill we'll call Advantage Island. So Lauren is a target. By then, Maddy had (correctly) intuited that Brandon didn't trust her enough to keep the secret of his own immunity idol, which he acquired by finding a hidden key to a rusty birdcage (if there's a metaphor to be found in there, it would take me too long to uncover it).
Maddy wants to rally the votes to oust Brandon before he can think to play his idol. After all, who plays their idol on their first Tribal Council? There's also yoga instructor Jaime, who was feeling paranoid enough that she talked about playing her Shot in the Dark dice roll even though literally nobody was talking about getting rid of her. (Though, considering how flakily she was behaving, maybe they should have.) Uncertainty was high, but it at least seemed like it would be either Team Brandon voting out Lauren or Team Maddy voting out Brandon.
And then Tribal Council hits. The crucial moment comes when Jaime, unprompted, declares before the votes are even cast that she'll be playing her Shot in the Dark. When asked why, she says she feels safe that, if everything everyone told her was true, her vote will not be necessary to clinch the majority. This causes Brandon's ears to immediately perk up, because clearly his plan to oust Lauren did not have that kind of comfortable margin. Something else was up.
Once the votes are cast — at which time Lauren uses her advantage, sacrificing her vote this week in order to get an extra vote for down the line — Jaime predictably plays her Shot in the Dark and WINS (the first time that's ever happened). Surprisingly, Matthew plays his Shot in the Dark as well, perhaps worried that his arm in a sling makes him seem like a physical liability. Then, with three votes already off of the table, Brandon plays his recently found immunity idol. Maddy and Kane's votes for Brandon are wiped out, and Brandon casts the lone and deciding vote for Maddy, clearly intuiting that she had turned the votes against him.
The game play by Brandon — and honestly Maddy as well — was satisfyingly shrewd. But if we're getting this kind of aggressive advantage–playing this early in the season, we may be in for a long, exhausting ride.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Brandon. He displayed some serious quick-thinking, clocking Jaime's rationale as a danger sign, and switched his vote to eliminate the player who was targeting him. He's now probably in the seat of power on Ratu.
Honorable Mention(s): Maddy was making the right move at the right time, and it's not her fault that Jaime was such a flake. She's the unenviable first boot, but can hold her head high.
Sketchy Strategy: Congratulations to Jaime on being the first ever successful Shot in the Dark play… at a time when she absolutely didn't need it.
Alliance Report: Matt and Franny formed a quick alliance on Soka tribe, while hot nerd Carson is now part of a triple alliance with Helen and Sarah on Tika tribe.
Coming Next Week: Matt and Frannie are maybe pulling a Colleen and Greg and forming a sweet lil' island romance.
Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM ET on CBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Survivor, Jeff Probst