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Are We Underestimating Survivor 44's Carolyn?

A surprise player swap throws the tribes into chaos, but chaos is where Carolyn lives.
  • Carolyn Wiger on Survivor (photo: Robert Voets/CBS)
    Carolyn Wiger on Survivor (photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Survivor Season 44, Episode 4, “I'm Felicia.”]

    Maybe we've been underestimating Carolyn all along? Certainly, this week's Survivor episode makes the case that Carolyn is more aware of the tribe dynamics on Tika than we've given her credit for. After 43 seasons, it can feel like Survivor fans have seen all the archetypes of players and their capabilities. Carolyn is the eccentric lady on her tribe, and she's been painted by the show and her fellow tribemates as somewhat kooky, so we tend to graft onto her the qualities of, say, Lydia flipping imaginary pancakes on Survivor: Guatemala or paranoid Noura on Island of the Idols.

    Debbie Wanner from Survivor: Kaôh Rōng is the comparison who seems most apt, given that Debbie was a big personality who was often too erratic for her fellow players to work with long term. Because we think we've got Carolyn in a box of her own archetype, it's been easy to imagine her strategy thus far as similarly erratic. She cries, she makes weird faces, she often seems overwhelmed by the basic facts of the game. But after this most recent episode, it's time to reckon with Carolyn as a strategic player who might have some real moves to make before this is all said and done.

    This ends up being a particularly challenging week for strategy, as the Survivors are faced with the first tribe-swap scenario in four seasons. After the reward challenge, one player from each tribe — Josh from Soka, Jaime from Ratu, and Carson from Tika — gets sent to Advantage Island. There they are separated and informed that they've each been granted an immunity idol which only retains its power until the tribes merge. And that idol will come in handy, because each player then gets sent to join their new tribe. Josh, who has no idea his head was next on the chopping block on Soka, gets sent to Tika. Carson, who seemed to be in a decent spot on Tika, is sent to Ratu. And Jaime, who was similarly in a good spot on Ratu (despite her closest ally, Matthew, scheming to have her find a fake immunity idol), is sent to the Soka tribe. All three have to figure out where and how they're going to fit in on their new tribes, while at the same time the tribes have to adjust their strategies.

    On Tika, Carolyn and Yam Yam are the dominant pair, with Sarah on the outs. Josh probably could have made some inroads on this tribe, though he stumbles out of the gate by unnecessarily lying about his profession. Certainly there is some strategic advantage to hiding the fact that you're a surgical podiatrist, but not if your cover story is flimsy and you just end up coming across as a liar. So maybe Sarah has some daylight to last a little bit longer in the game. Alas, for Sarah, her game ends up getting completely undone by unlikely mastermind Carolyn… kind of.

    The fascinating thing about this week's episode is that you can read Carolyn's strategic game on a spectrum from "accidentally brilliant" to "somewhat strategic" all the way up to "secret mastermind." To start, Carolyn gets Sarah to find the Tika tribe's fake immunity idol. After finding the key to access the Tika birdcage several episodes ago, she hides the fake idol at camp and devises a half-janky, half-clever "clue" where she makes an "X" out of two red sticks and puts it on the birdcage, then puts another red "X" where the fake idol is buried. This seems very obviously homemade and fake, but Sarah at least ends up falling for it. She finds the fake idol, and up through the episode's closing credits, she thinks she has a real one.

    After Tika loses the immunity challenge, the second part of Carolyn's ouster of Sarah takes shape. Josh is the obvious odd one out, but Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Sarah all (correctly) are playing under the assumption that he's got an immunity idol. Yam Yam's plan is to make Josh feel safe by convincing him that they're going to vote out Carolyn instead. This is a great plan for Yam Yam: either fool Josh into not playing his idol and get him out, or don't fool Josh but have him vote for Carolyn anyway.

    Carolyn does not love this idea. What's interesting is that Carolyn has both an immunity idol and a Shot in the Dark option to save herself, but she doesn't immediately go to that well. Instead, she works on Josh. By this point, Josh has been convinced that Carolyn is the real target, and he approaches her with a plan to play his idol on her, thinking that's how they can oust Sarah. Carolyn knows this will just result in Josh getting voted out. So she weighs her options and considers either allowing Josh to hang himself out to dry and sticking with her Tika alliance, or else making a big move and telling Josh to play the idol on himself. Carolyn knows that being led around by Yam Yam's strategy won't benefit her in the long run (and it might even get her voted out in the short run). She also just seems to be annoyed at how easily Yam Yam tends to dismiss her strategically.

    At Tribal Council, Yam Yam makes what Carolyn sees as a faux pas, using the word "she" to describe a hypothetical person he might say "Bye, Felicia" to, in order to pick up a new ally in Josh. Of course, "she" would describe either Carolyn or Sarah in this scenario, but the comment crystallizes for Carolyn her feeling of being taken for granted. "I'm Felicia," she deduces, and it sticks in her craw for the rest of Tribal.

    There was a minute there before everybody was told to go vote where it momentarily seemed like this could all be a ruse, that Yam Yam and Carolyn were playing up this rift to make it look certain that Carolyn was the target, to get Josh to play his idol on her. That was the galaxy-brain outcome, and had that happened, we'd have been able to confidently put that "secret mastermind' crown on Carolyn's head. Instead, Carolyn's dejection is very real, and she ends up teaming up with Josh, having him play his idol on himself, voting out Sarah 2-0, and turning the tables on Yam Yam in the process. Carolyn, the resident kook of Tika tribe, emerged from tribal as its top dog.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Player of the Week: Clearly, it's Carolyn, at least in the short term. Not sure how far a shaky alliance of her and Josh will ultimately go in this game, but she makes her move.

    Honorable Mention(s): Matthew wastes no time in pulling in new tribemate Carson as an ally, to shore up his loss of Jaime and keep him in an advantageous position on Ratu.

    Sketchy Strategy: Josh survives the week, but he does himself no favors as far as coming across as a savvy player. On Soka, he completely misinterprets his position on the tribe, thinking he's the swing vote between two pairs when really all four are aligned against him. And on Tika, his largely unnecessary lies about being a dummy personal trainer who can't pass the MCATs make him look like an obvious liar.

    Alliance Report: For the moment, it's looking like it's Soka Strong, with Danny, Heidi, Frannie, and Matt as a tight four, with Jaime on the outs.

    Advantage Report: Some quick clarification on the real idol/fake idol situation here, because the show has been unnecessarily confusing. This tweet clears it up: inside the birdcage on each tribe was a satchel which contained one real immunity idol and one powerless trinket (which was obviously meant to be used as a fake idol to trick some unsuspecting tribemate). But the distinction of which trinket is a real idol and which is powerless is different on each tribe. So here's how it stands:

    • Danny has the real immunity idol on Soka (which is a medallion).
    • Matt has the fake immunity on Soka (which is a silver coin)
    • Carolyn has the real immunity idol on Tika (which is a silver coin)
    • Sarah got voted out with the fake immunity idol from Tika (which was beads)
    • Matthew found a re-hidden Ratu immunity idol (which is beads)
    • Jamie has a fake immunity idol that Matthew made himself from items at Ratu camp
    • Lauren has an extra vote to use whenever she wants.
    • Sarah was also voted out with the Inheritance Advantage in her pocket, which would have allowed her to secretly scarf up all the advantages played at that particular Tribal Council. This advantage may end up being re-hidden on the island for someone else to find.
    • Matt still can't vote at his next tribal council.

    Coming Next Week: The show’s teasing that Matthew's injury could lead to his removal from the game, but be on guard for a fakeout. Yam Yam and Josh have gay conflict.

    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, CBS, Carolyn Wiger, Jeff Probst