After an emotional finale filled with tears, another name is etched into the history books.
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols
S44 E13
Show MoreAbout Survivor
  • TV Show

What is he doing? What is he thinking? What the hell is wrong with this freakin' guy? That was my basic reaction while watching Yam Yam Arocho help Carson Garrett with his fire-making skills during the finale of Survivor 44.

Here was one player teaching another player how to make fire — the master giving the student skills that then could be used against him should the two ultimately face off against one another in the final four fire-making competition. And even if they did not face off, what if Carson used those skills to defeat someone else, putting him into the final three, where he could very likely win it all at Yam Yam's expense?

This seemingly foolish act of pity and mercy on Yam Yam's part could easily have cost him a million dollars. But it also perfectly encapsulates how and why the 36-year-old salon owner from Puerto Rico won the jury — by winning their hearts.

Yam Yam Arocho on 'Survivor 44'
Yam Yam Arocho on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

While Yam Yam bragged about sending every person that wrote his name down to the jury, it was not strategy that propelled him to the title of Sole Survivor. It was a flawless social game. All season long, you would see tribemates smiling and laughing whenever Yam Yam spoke (much like they did during Winners at War whenever Tony Vlachos was commanding an audience).

Yam Yam made people happy, and that is a recipe for success in this game. But he also showed us in this scene with Carson and the fire that his bonds went well beyond humor. Whether it was a strategic move because he figured showing such concern for Carson would guarantee him Carson's vote from the jury, or it was just a genuine display of friendship and helping out a tribemate clearly in a vulnerable emotional state does not really matter, because the effect it and other similar smaller moments that most likely never made it to air achieved are basically the same — it made people like Carson want to reward Yam Yam at the end. And he was rewarded in an overwhleming 7-1-0 vote.

Yam Yam made people feel good. And when someone makes you feel good, you want to reciprocate that feeling. And that's why he's the Sole Survivor. And now, for the second time in three seasons, we have a super colorful character earning that title. Maryanne from season 42 and Yam Yam are very different in many ways, but they were both delightfully unpretentious personalities who leapt off the screen. They were also the type of big characters we used to see on the show who would either get voted out quickly or dragged to the end to get creamed. But now they're winning! And winning with impressive résumés.

But we also need to talk about Carolyn. Mostly because I always want to talk about Carolyn, but also because she came so close to becoming the most unexpected winner in Survivor history. Carolyn was the first face we saw and the first voice we heard this entire season. At least from among the contestants. Think back to the season premiere of Survivor 44 and what had to be the weirdest intro in franchise history. Yes, even weirder than Jeff Probst kinda casually taking a stroll and chatting with viewers all conversational-like at the start of Survivor 41.

There was Carolyn Wiger, sitting there preparing for a confessional interview with a producer, and she wasn't even sure what she was supposed to do. "So I'm just, like, talking?" she asked. At that moment, we knew we had some classic comedic relief coming our way this season, and Carolyn definitely delivered in that department.

Carolyn Wiger on 'Survivor 44'
Carolyn Wiger on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

With no disrespect to the late, great Keith Nale, Survivor should be fun. At least for viewers. And I don't know if Carolyn was fun to live with, but she — like Yam Yam — sure was fun to watch. Whether randomly screaming and yelling through various challenges, or making all manner of contorted facial expressions, or telling Probst she was mad at him at Tribal Council, Carolyn was the unfiltered breath of fresh air that opening season clip promised she would be.

And while Carolyn often stated that her words got her into trouble, she eloquently used them to make a compelling argument as to why she should be rewarded — as opposed to punished — for playing an emotional game. And she sagely presented that argument at the final six Tribal Council instead of waiting until the final three, giving the jury both time and permission to let that argument sink in and take hold, rather than springing it on them at the final Tribal when their decisions were very likely already made (no matter what B.S. Kane was spewing about every vote being open).

It didn't ultimately work. Yam Yam still got the victory, but Carolyn proved to herself, to the jury, and to the millions of people watching that she was more than just a kooky character serving as mere comic relief. The woman had layers! She also played the game hard and played the game well.

But even though Carolyn was an absolute delight to watch all season long, and Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt was a 100 percent certified badass down the stretch — winning both the final immunity challenge and dominating at fire — I don't know how anyone could be truly unhappy with this result. The season was definitely not about big moves, or even about big moments. (There was nothing that even came close to approaching last season's Jeanine idol or Jesse taking out Cody — and Season 43 was considered to be super sleepy in itself!) Instead, this season was all about big personalities, which is why Yam Yam serves as a great representation of this group as their designated Sole Survivor.

Okay, we're just getting rolling here. Let's get into some other thoughts about the three-hour season finale of Survivor 44.

Carolyn Wiger, Lauren Harpe, Yam Yam Arocho, Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, and Carson Garrett on 'Survivor 44'
Carolyn Wiger, Lauren Harpe, Yam Yam Arocho, Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, and Carson Garrett on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

A puzzling situation

Wow. That was my first reaction when I saw the massive build for this final five challenge filled with huge obstacles and giant platforms. If you were looking for a scene that could show off what the Survivor challenge and art departments could do, this was it.

Unfortunately, the last shot of the killer drone montage was of a puzzle, so we already knew who would win it before the contest even began. That naturally sapped some of the drama out of the competition, but I've already gone on enough this season about how old puzzles need to be retired due to 3D printergate.

Before we continue, I want to pause for the cause to appreciate the effort involved to just build this entire challenge. Put yourself in the position of one of the final five. Let's make it Carolyn, just so you can blurt out random screams, yelps, and other sound effects roughly every five seconds. Can you imagine how absolutely stoked you would be to walk up and see those huge structures and know you were going to go play on that?! Awesome.

Anyway, yeah, Carson dominated the puzzle, winning himself immunity as well as a trip with Yam Yam to the Sanctuary. Speaking of which, does anyone happen to know what kind of things happen at the Sanctuary?

Survivor 44
Carolyn Wiger, Yam Yam Arocho, and Lauren Harpe on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

Lauren lets it all out

There were so many tears during this finale of Survivor that, for a second there, I thought they had reinstated the loved ones visits. The first big waterworks occurred at the final five Tribal Council as Jeff Probst and everyone else tried to figure out if Lauren was faking being despondent about the upcoming vote or actually had found the idol.

It turned out to be the former, but the tears that followed were tears of joy as Lauren Harpe talked about how super proud she was of herself for winning two immunities and learning lessons out on the island that she could bring back home. Not unlike the Great Tri-County Bake Off & Pie Eat vomitorium scene in Stand by Me, the tears must have been contagious. But instead of projectile vomit spreading throughout the ranks, this time eye rain was proliferating among both active contestants and jury members alike. Frannie, Jaime, Heidi, and Carolyn were all open faucets. And I have to assume there were multiple puddles back in the producers' control room as well, but that was due to the fact that nobody found the final five advantage or idol that was left out on the new beach.

Man, this cast really thwarted producers at every turn by not finding idols and not playing the fake ones they were given. Probst has always been very open about how producers want idols to be played and that's why they put them out there. Obviously, the birdcages were introduced to up the hijinks factor as well. But this collection of likable, upstanding, charismatic, and adventurous individuals just kept inadvertently screwing up the best-laid plans. It's actually kind of hilarious, in retrospect.

Anyway, without the idol, Lauren was toast, and she moved over to the jury in fifth place. She won two immunities, made it to finale night, and appears to have a new perspective on life, so good for her. I also just want to note the smart move by Yam Yam of voting for Heidi to protect himself just in case Lauren did have and play the idol. So consider that noted.

Lauren Harpe on 'Survivor 44'
Lauren Hapre on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

The Simmotion of the ocean

Y'all, I'm really torn on this one. (And yes, I have been known to bust out a y'all on occasion.)  And what I'm torn on is… Simmotion. Simmotion — in which players have to drop balls into a chute and catch them before they fall, with one arm tied behind their backs — has earned its place as one of the greatest Survivor challenges ever, and you could see why here during the final challenge of the season.

The setting was gorgeous, the action was dramatic, and the entire challenge was an editing marvel. What I love so much about this challenge and the way it was produced and edited is that it builds. Go back and watch it again. Not only are the camera angles and cuts masterful, but watch — and listen to — how the intensity builds as the competition continues. As more balls are added, the edits are quicker and the music feels more frantic. You can almost feel your own heartbeat speeding up as it goes. It's seriously a clinic on how to edit a challenge and works so well on a frenzied competition like this.

So why am I torn? Only because we have had a lot of Simmotion lately. This marks the eighth time the challenge has been run since it first debuted on season 18 (Tocantins) and the sixth time it has been run as the final immunity competition. But it has been even more omnipresent of late: This marks the third time it has been run as the final immunity contest in the past five seasons (and the fifth time it has appeared in the past nine installments).

Is that too much of a good thing? I mean, it's probably too cumbersome to 3D print, but since we already have the same Fijian beaches and landscape season after season, it would be nice to have a little more variety in our final four challenges. So while I love what I saw, I would probably put this particular contest on ice for a bit. You know what they say: Always better to leave 'em wanting more! (Advice I seem to ignore on a weekly basis with this recap, incidentally.)

Oh, and congrats to Heidi for winning. Super impressive!

Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt on 'Survivor 44'
Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt on 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

Fire woman

You know I just love quoting song titles by Goth-new-wavers-turned-arena-rockers the Cult, and Heidi cued me up perfectly this week. After guaranteeing her way to the final three, the last Soka member just blurted out — completely unprompted! — to Probst that she might put herself into the fire-making competition. This produced a flurry of thoughts from yours truly.

First off, I was bummed that Heidi even felt it was necessary to do that. I won't go on another fire-making rant, but I just can't get past the fact that it punishes the winner of the final challenge by making them feel they need to go to fire anyway. And if you don't go to fire, then you allow your future competition in the final three to pad their résumé by notching a big, dramatic win right in front of the jury (who did not witness your challenge win). Sorry, not ranting. Moving on.

Anyhoodle, my other thought watching Heidi make that bold announcement was wishing she had not said it at all. Because that's not how to play the jury. Now that she had mentioned it to Probst, he was going to bring it up at Tribal Council, and you've neutered the impact of your big decision when you make it. Had Heidi not said anything, she could have blown the jury's mind by announcing she was going in, but now the decision to do it was at the very least semi-expected. And if she had decided not to do it, the jury would have been massively let down.

Because she had already tipped her move in advance, it was impossible for Heidi to really impress the jury at this point… UNLESS SHE MADE FIRE FASTER THAN ANYONE HAS EVER MADE FIRE BEFORE! Which is exactly what happened.

How in the name of Hephaestus and/or Hestia, did Heidi make fire that quickly? She made fire faster than it takes to burp chocolate up Carolyn's nose. She made fire faster than challenge producer John Kirhoffer can shotgun a beer. She made fire faster than it takes Jeff Probst to film an "Apply to be on Survivor!" spot. And she made fire faster than any player in Tribal Council history. Three minutes and two seconds. Insane. She even ate up the Ali-Gabler!

And that meant the end of Carson. Carson always kind of had the feel of a player not likely to survive the final four fire-making, because he was too social, too smart, and just too likable. He was also a really great narrator in a season absolutely stocked with them. What I really appreciated about Carson is that he was clearly an obsessed superfan who — outside of Barfapalooza 2023 and a brief fire-practice meltdown — seemed to actually really enjoy his time out there instead of constantly stressing out, all the way through to his elimination. Good for him. An impressive showing from an impressive guy.

The 'Survivor 44' jury: Matt Blankinship, Brandon Cottom, Kane Fritzler, Frannie Marin, Danny Massa, and Jaime Lynn Ruiz
The 'Survivor 44' jury: Matt Blankinship, Brandon Cottom, Kane Fritzler, Frannie Marin, Danny Massa, and Jaime Lynn Ruiz
| Credit: cbs

The jury is out (of drama)

Admit it. You kind of miss the bruised egos and pointed questions of Survivor final Tribal Councils of yesteryear. I know you do, because so do I. The Survivor 44 cast was filled with the type of nice and agreeable folks I would actually go out and share a Shirley Temple with… if I ever left my house, that is. But man, sometimes you just want a little drama!

Probst instructed the jury at the start of final Tribal: "Jury, your job: Hold them accountable. Make them defend their case." But did they? Most of the questions and comments were softballs lobbed up for players to hit on their preferred themes — like Frannie's underhand home-run pitch to Carolyn on playing with emotion. Which is what we have seen for the most part in the past few seasons. I don't have any sort of suggestion for how to fix this, by the way. I think the new open forum format is still probably better than the old-school ask-one-question-and-then-sit-down method because this way there are less rigid rules to the discussion and we don't have to be subjected to inane questions simply because everyone needs to have a chance to stand up and ask something.

But something has been missing. Go back and watch the Micronesia final Tribal or tons of other ones from the old-to-middle-school era like Gabon and anything with Eliza Orlins in it. They are like night and day when compared to now. We just need to put a little spice and sizzle back into final Tribal. I don't know if the show needs to cast more villains or what, but if I were in those producers' brainstorming meetings, it's something I would be discussing. To paraphrase the most famous jury speech of all time… WHERE ARE ALL THE RATS AND SNAKES?!?

I do think the final three did an excellent job stating their cases. I mean, Heidi interrupting Yam Yam on his very first answer probably wasn't a great look, but she made up for it by playing to the heartstrings in talking about how she wanted to represent people that look and sound different, and girls who want to be in science. She even went a step further than that, noting that she came to this country unable to speak English and also boldly stated: "I will put in a plug that maybe we can make history today, because if you vote for me to win, I will be the oldest female contestant winner. So we can make even more history together if you vote for me."

I mean, it sounded a little forced and didn't work, but playing the age and gender card is not a bad move in the least. (If Jeremy Collins can play the pregnancy card, anything goes!) And had I been on the jury, I may have actually voted for Heidi solely as pushback against Carson's dumb percentages on how much each person was on the right side of the vote — clearly meant to damage Heidi against his two Tiki allies. (And also, like, who cares?)

The final 5 of 'Survivor 44'
The final 5 of 'Survivor 44'
| Credit: CBS

Speaking of Carson, was he coaching Carolyn from the jury? The dude clearly gave an "okay" sign with his hand, accompanied by multiple head nods, as she was explaining to Danny why she needed him out because he was controlling the votes. Is that allowed? Not that I really care… but is it?

Meanwhile, Yam Yam did what Yam Yam does so well, using his words as weapons and killing with both kindness and laughter. He once again charmed the pants off of everyone and had the jury smiling, and that's all he really had to do. And then he had to keep doing it even after he won, because we still had the Survivor after-show to get through, people!

While the reunion show is better than the after-show in a million ways that we've already broken down too many times in too many words over the past few seasons, there is no doubt that Probst revealing to Jaime that her idol was actually fake was a fantastic reveal that simply could not have happened 11 months later at the reunion, and watching her open-mouthed shock was easily the greatest after-show moment in four seasons.

And I kind of love promising to put Jaime's fake idol back into a future season, with no word as to whether it would be real or fake. Personally, I could not be more excited, because to me that means one thing… GHOST ISLAND 2! The idol could mature with awesome new powers! That's not even a joke. I love, love, love the Ghost Island concept. Sure, the execution was a bit wonky the first time out, but it's still a cool idea. I mean, who doesn't want to see classic Survivor items from the past? I'm telling you Ghost Island 2! Bring back Chris Noble while you're at it. Maybe Noble has been hanging out on Ghost Island this entire time and maturing with awesome new powers of his own. RAP POWERS!

We also learned that everybody cried, that Matt and Fannie "have more chemistry than a pharmaceutical lab," and that nobody knew Carson worked at NASA. Plus, we got a super-rad look at Survivor 45 and the return of Bruce Perreault!

Okay, since seemingly everyone on the show was crying this week, I figure I should get all sappy and emotional too. But before I do that, just a heads-up about all the other finale content we have for you. Did you see our interview with the Survivor 44 jury? No? Well, go see it! We also had the entire cast talking about how they wanted to handle the jury, as well as the final five naming the juror members who worried them the most in the game.

In addition, we have an exclusive deleted montage from the finale that is actually really hilarious and you should check out, plus your first look at the next season of Survivor. And if it's exit interviews you crave, then check out chats with Yam Yam, Heidi, Carolyn, Carson, and Lauren.

Okay, I promised emotion, and emotion you shall have! This is my 44th season of writing about this show in some capacity or another (yes, I need another hobby) and I once again appreciate your patronage, kind words, and supportive tweets and Instagram messages. They make the early mornings, late nights, and everything in between at least semi-worth it. Thanks so much for taking this ride with me again as we forge on toward Survivor 45… where good things happen. Hopefully.

Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.

Related content:

Episode Recaps

SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning $1 million, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "Dig deep!"

  • TV Show
  • 44
stream service