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Survivor 44 Crowns the Most Satisfying Winner of the Show’s Modern Era

In a welcome change from last season, this finale offered good vibes and a narrative that made sense.
  • Carolyn Wiger, Lauren Harpe, Yam Yam Arocho, Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, and Carson Garrett (photo: CBS)
    Carolyn Wiger, Lauren Harpe, Yam Yam Arocho, Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, and Carson Garrett (photo: CBS)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Survivor Season 44, Episode 13, "Absolute Banger Season."]

    Was Season 44 of Survivor, as juror Matt described it in tonight's finale, an "absolute banger season"? It was a season that presented its fair share of frustration for longtime fans. Once again, women were overwhelmingly the targets to be voted out in the early stages of the game. Once again, there seemed to be an overload of idols and advantages flooding the game. This season saw more fake immunity idols injected into the game as well. Injuries — not always in production's control, of course — played a part in two premature eliminations from the game.

    And yet, more than any season in the show's "new" era, which began when it returned from COVID hiatus, Season 44 felt truly satisfying. The cast was full of likable players who were all trying to work their own angles to get ahead. While the original tribal alliances stayed intact for much longer than usual, there weren't many players riding coattails to the end of the game, and as was apparent in the composition of the final three players — Carolyn, Heidi, and Yam Yam — there were no so-called goats taken to the end because they'd be easy to beat. When the jury was sent to cast their votes, all three finalists seemed like they could win.

    And after a few seasons that seemed to be edited to fool the audience into thinking the ultimate winner couldn't possibly win, this season's victor presented a very satisfying narrative. Yam Yam Arocho, the salon owner from San Juan, Puerto Rico, may not have been the overwhelming fan favorite to win this season. His fellow Tika ally Carolyn Wiger has been the darling of the editors, viewers, and former Survivor players alike. But Yam Yam was probably a close second for many. He was a terrifically entertaining presence all season, with a gift for explaining his situation in the game in the most sparkling and colorful terms. Yam Yam was willing to play a sharply strategic game, intent on voting out anybody who'd ever cast a stray vote his way. But he did so with a smile. His social game left the people he voted out still eager to see him win, which is ultimately the only way to nab that million-dollar prize.

    Yam Yam's win was a good combination of surprising (Carolyn really was the overwhelming favorite) and satisfying. In fact the finale itself combines the surprising and satisfying to good effect. Of course, it doesn't start out all that surprising. Puzzle king Carson wins the final-five immunity challenge, which culminates in a giant 3D puzzle. While there was some question as to whether Yam Yam and Carolyn might turn on each other and get rid of their biggest competition, that doesn't happen, and Lauren is expectedly voted out. The biggest surprise was that nobody found the hidden immunity idol that was hanging up in a tree. It seemed certain that the editors were going to spring a flashback to someone finding the idol at the last minute, but no. It was a deflating but oddly appropriate end to this season's run of immunity idols and advantages that either never got played or weren't played successfully.

    Heidi then wins immunity at final 4, her first individual challenge win, which couldn't have come at a better time. She now has to decide who she's sending through to the finals and who she's sending into the fire-making challenge. Ever since fire-making was introduced into the game in Season 35, there have been strategy debates over whether it's better to take the immunity and go straight to the finals or volunteer to make fire and thus impress the jury one last time before they vote. The latter gambit had only been attempted once, by Chris Underwood in Season 38, and those were rather unique circumstances, as Chris had recently returned to the game from the Edge of Extinction and needed a hail mary strategy to actually win (he did). Heidi isn't facing quite as long odds, but she (correctly, as it turns out) assumes she still needs to do more for her case in the jury's eyes. So she volunteers to make fire against Carson.

    Carson is the biggest threat in the game at this point, but for all the practice he put into making puzzles, it turns out he's really bad at making fire. He gets emotional when talking about coming this close to the end and the possibility of coming up short because he can't get over this last hurdle. In a very sweet scene, Yam Yam gives Carson some fire-making pointers and a hug of support. It feels like a big moment for Carson, but in retrospect it's really a moment for Yam Yam. That kind of generosity of spirit is apparent in his personality, and it's likely part of the reason he's ultimately able to win over the jury. But before that, we get the fire-making challenge, which Heidi blazes through (pun intended) at a record-setting three minutes and one second.

    Here's where it starts to seem like Heidi might be following the footsteps of Erika and Gabler, people who entered the finale in recent seasons without a typical winner's narrative and yet still won over their respective juries. The Season 44 jury goes wild for Heidi's win, jumping up and down and cheering. Is Heidi more popular than we've been giving her credit for? She's spent the last few episodes strategically blowing in the breeze while the Tika Three have been guiding the votes, so a Heidi win just because she's got a lot of friends on the jury would have been a bummer.

    Fortunately, this ends up being a good natured and fair-minded jury. There's no bitterness in their questions, and while Heidi, Yam Yam, and Carolyn are all given credit for the respective games that they played, none of them is treated like a coattail rider or a goat.

    It's still a bit surprising that Carolyn isn't ultimately the winner, if only because she's been edited as the star of the show all season. Her narrative of overcoming her drug addiction has been inspiring, and she talks at the final tribal about how her experiences in rehab informed the way she played the game as both a strategic and emotional player.

    But this final episode shows Yam Yam as a consummate player and a deeply satisfying winner. His alliance to Carson was a bit closer than Carolyn's. His ability to read other players' body language to figure out if they were being genuine with him was a huge asset. And his story of wanting to prove himself and win for his family, for queer people, and for Puerto Rico was hugely inspiring. Setting aside any disappointment for Carolyn, Yam Yam's is the most satisfying winner's narrative in a very long time.

    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, Carolyn Wiger, Carson Garrett, Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, Jeff Probst, Lauren Harpe, Yam Yam Arocho