“Survivor 45” recap: Fascinating finale caps a solid season

“Survivor 45” recap: Fascinating finale caps a solid season
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One player gets the glory, while another steals the show.

Nothing shocking happened on the three-hour finale of Survivor 45. There were no jaw-dropping blindsides. There was no WTF move from the jury crowning a winner no viewers saw coming. Hostile aliens did not land a spaceship and unleash an army of breakdancing robots only to see one of those robots go haywire, murder Jeff Probst, and then ominously stare over at the horrified contestants and tell them to “Dig deep on that, humans!”

None of that happened. But even though there may not be any massively crazy or controversial moves for fans to discuss and debate over the next two months while we wait for Survivor 46 to be unleashed, damn if that was not a super satisfying finale.

Let’s start with the winner, Dee Valladares. I should be mad. I should be raising my fist to the heavens in an angry gesture and yelling something super dramatic and unoriginal like, “DAMN YOU, DEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” All of you out there with a better memory than mine may recall that Austin was my episode 1 to pick to win it all. The guy seemed sharp, social, athletic, yet not flamboyant enough to make himself an easy target. He also has luxurious flowing locks of hair. Maybe that had something to do with it… I don’t know.

The point is, he was my pick to win, and if he had pulled it out, it would have been my third successful winner pick in the past six seasons, a pretty impressive run after an epic streak of prognosticating futility. And not unlike every Scooby-Doo episode ever made, I would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for those meddling kids… or, in this case, Dee.

<p>Robert Voets/CBS</p> Dee Valladares on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS

Dee Valladares on 'Survivor 45'

Dee’s résumé speaks for itself: She won three individual immunities, she flipped the vote to save Julie and oust Emily, and then went behind her boyfriend’s back to send his number one ally Drew out of the game. We learned at the start of the finale that Dee had not, in fact, informed Austin of the Drew flip, preferring to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission. So savage, especially after he informed her about the Julie vote earlier. No quid pro quo here, my friend! But her best move of the season was yet to come.

Because not only did she not tell Austin about the move to take out Drew before it happened, but she didn’t tell Austin that she had informed Julie the target was on her and to play the idol. And when I say didn't tell him, I mean she never told him. Not after the vote. Not after Drew went. Not after Julie went. Like someone married to Dalton Ross waiting for him to stop talking incessantly about Survivor, she waited. And waited. And then waited some more until the time was perfect. And that time was during final Tribal Council.

After Emily pushed back on Austin and asked if it was a sign of weakness that he told Dee about the plan to oust Julie, Austin responded that it was inconsequential that he told Dee because “Dee never told Julie.” Poor Austin. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he just got Admiral Ackbar’d even worse than the Rebel Alliance being baited into taking on a fully operational Death Star. IT’S A TRAP!!!! And he fell right into it.

There is perhaps no worse look to a jury than being exposed as not knowing a critical piece of information, and Dee was about to stomp on Austin’s hopes and dreams worse like my main man Jake stomping on a final immunity challenge contraption. Because when Dee then informed Austin for the first time right in front of the jury that she had, in fact, told Julie and flipped that vote herself, it was game over. There was no recovering from that. Dee knew, Austin didn’t. It was as if she asked Probst to put final Tribal Council on hold so she could go rent out a helicopter and do a reward flyover right above Austin’s head. Just absolutely savage.

It may not have been the flashiest final Tribal Council move, but it was certainly one of the most effective. I’m guessing Dee already had the game won when that jury walked into FTC, but if Austin had any chance whatsoever of turning the tide and talking his way into a win, that chance evaporated at that moment.

Dee outplayed and outtalked the lawyer and the University of Chicago grad student at the end and was rewarded with a million dollars for it. It’s impossible for anyone to be upset with that. Sure, you may have been moved by Jake’s story and never-say-die attitude. And you may have been impressed with how Austin so effortlessly collected idols and advantages and (with Drew) seemed to chart the first half of the merge. But there’s simply no way to argue Dee did not deserve this. The woman checked all three boxes — social game, strategic game, and challenge performance. And it just goes to show that the true path to a Survivor victory is relentlessly hounding casting director Jesse Tannenbaum on social media.

Dee's name is a worthy entry into the Survivor history books. But while Dee gets all the glory, another player stole the show with one of the most fascinating finale arcs in franchise history.

<p>CBS</p> The 'Survivor 45' final five


The 'Survivor 45' final five

Riding the "Survivor" roller coaster

Obsessed. I’m flat-out obsessed. Jake’s journey in the finale is one of my favorite things ever. And I’ll begin by admitting… I’ve been sleeping on Jake a bit this season. Sure, I always found his confessionals entertaining. The dude is hella funny. And I was intrigued by his weird mix of boldness and self-doubt. But since he was just kind of hanging on for dear life ever since the merge and I never gave him much of a chance of winning, I was far more focused on other folks.

But I think I may need to go check into Hackensack Meridian Mountainside Medical Center due to severe whiplash from watching all the epic highs and devastating lows that Jake O’Kane just experienced in one episode of television. And now Jake is one of my absolute favorite players of the season. Just look at what happened to this dude in the finale.

Jake won the advantage for the last challenge, using Survivor history as his guide to remember the numbers from a counting challenge. Who thought J.T., Denise, and the Alligabler would prove to be such key elements in the finale? Jake was never considered a challenge beast, so to see him win this advantage hunt — on the heels of his idol find last week — was thrilling. One couldn’t help but wonder at this point: Is Jake O’Kane about to make a late-game run at this thing?!?

Jake’s advantage in the first immunity challenge meant that he only had to toss one sandbag into a basket, as opposed to everyone else having to land three. But even without that advantage, Jake was moving in this challenge that ended with players having to complete the Michele Fitzgerald special — which is, to say, a three-tier tower puzzle that Survivor rules dictate must be kicked down upon completion.

But Jake completely sabotaged his chances with not one, but two huge gaffes. First, he forgot to bring his key with him to the top of the tower — ditching it in much the same way I have been known to ditch friends at a bar to go home and watch reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess. That was bad, and it would not be the only lack of attention to detail that Jake would experience because he would later — in the very same challenge! — forget about a puzzle piece that threw off all his calculations in matching up the heights of the six towers.

The camera kept brutally giving us close-ups of the missing piece to accentuate what a blunder Jake was making. It was like we were all watching a horror movie and the victim had no idea that he had already been murdered. Making this double blunder so brutal is that Jake was right on Austin’s heels. He very well may have (would have?) won otherwise.

<p>CBS</p> Jake O'Kane on 'Survivor 45'


Jake O'Kane on 'Survivor 45'

While walking into Tribal Council with the immunity necklace on would have been a baller move, the truth is Jake didn’t really need it. Because he still had his immunity idol, and now he was going to use it in a super-epic way! (Or so he thought.)

Jake wanted to cause a big splash with his idol, but then made the highly suspect move of basically telling everyone on the beach that he had it. To quote the noted philosopher Austin Li Coon: “I’m sorry, but why’d you tell me, bro? Why’d you tell me?”

Jake’s plan was to make everybody think he was playing the idol on himself, but then play it for Katurah instead… although for the life of me, I cannot understand in what universe that would be more shocking than nobody at Tribal realizing he even had one and then him playing it for Katurah instead. Why deliver just one surprise when you can deliver two? But whatever.

The problem is that Jake’s grand scheme was supposed to lead to Dee being eliminated, but Katurah changed her vote at the last minute (which we’ll get into a little later). That meant that Jake’s big splashy move ended up being somewhat castrated because not only did he cast the only vote on Dee (making him once again appear out of the loop), but Katurah did not even need saving because she would not have been voted out anyway.

“The thing about my idol is I must have the most impact as possible,” Jake said before Tribal, and then due to no fault of his own (Katurah’s flip) it ended up essentially having no impact.

I didn’t think Jake stood any chance in the final immunity challenge, which tasked players with stacking 17 cups with a fork while maneuvering through ropes. But there he was right on Dee’s tail at 13 cups each. And then it all went to hell.

Jake’s stack fell, and instead of delicately moving between the ropes contraption to go retrieve his strewn-about cups, Jake just flat out walked right on top of the entire thing. “Jake, you break that challenge, you’re out,” warned Probst — to which Jake kept going… finally breaking it. “That’s on you,” announced Probst after telling the player he was done.

Jake said he was just trying to get to the cups faster, but that looked like pure frustration to me, and… I LOVED IT! Yes, show me some emotion. Show me some frustration. I love it when people are all pissed Danny Massa-style after blowing it in challenges. A passionate contestant is a fun contestant to watch — win, lose, or pounding all over a Survivor challenge build.

<p>CBS</p> Jake O'Kane on 'Survivor 45'


Jake O'Kane on 'Survivor 45'

“I’m making a fire. I’m burning a rope. I’m doing it as fast as possible. That’s what’s up.”

Best line of the finale, hands down. But let’s get into what set it up. After Dee won the final immunity, Jake was still searching for his signature move and asked Dee to “please don’t” bring him to the end. Instead, he wanted to earn it. And he wanted to, for once, experience the absolute high of a big (and successful) Tribal Council move. “No plan went my way,” he told us. “If I lose this game, I lose the game, but I want to be able to say that I did something.”

Jake asked to be put into fire, and he then absolutely killed it. This was Jake’s signature moment. He searched for it all season, and finally, one day before it was all over, he found it. And then after it was all done, he threw a little sauce on it — warming his hands on the fire he just built.

Watching Jake struggle all season long with his confidence and agency in the game, I don’t know how anyone could not have been super happy for him in that moment. That dude, perhaps more than anyone in Survivor history, needed a win. And it was a perfect way for his arc to end, with ultimate triumph and a side order of swagger. Unfortunately for Jake, his full arc did not end there.

I’m putting final Tribal Council as a devastating low because, in most respects, there is no other way to categorize getting zero votes from the jury as anything but devastating. That said, I hope that’s not the way Jake looks at it. Even though he told me before the season began that “Dr. Frankenstein himself couldn't create a better monster for final Tribal Council…. I would 100% bet on me to win if I'm in final Tribal,” Jake had to know deep down that beating Dee and Austin was a long shot. Plus, plenty of great players have been zero-vote finalists in the past. True, some terrible players like Stephen Fishbach also are in that mix (hahahahahaha!), but there are great players too!

And I will say that while some of Jake’s answers to the jury did not seem to hit their mark in that he did not take enough ownership for the moves he at least tried to make, at other times, he had them laughing, and you may laugh at this, but that is totally a way to win Survivor.

I realize I just spent a lot of both my time and yours writing about Jake O’Kane, and that’s not the way I planned for this recap to go, but I truly found this to be one of the most fascinating one-episode arcs for any player ever. Jake wanted the full Survivor experience, and holy moly did he get it. Never have I seen so many highs and lows for one person in such rapid succession, and if there is one thing I will remember from this finale 10 years from now beyond Dee’s dominance and the fact that I need to get on Jeff Probst’s workout regimen, it will be that. But there is one other thing I also can’t stop thinking about.

<p>CBS</p> Katurah Topps and Julie Alley on 'Survivor 45'


Katurah Topps and Julie Alley on 'Survivor 45'

The moment Dee should have lost

Dee Valladares never should have won Survivor. Never should have won that final immunity challenge. Never should have stunned Austin at final Tribal Council. Never should have received a single jury vote. Because Dee should have been on the jury.

Survivor is a game of inches. You can be so close to being sent home on day 3 as a complete social outcast, and then emerge as a major social threat with a legitimate shot at winning. Just ask Emily Flippen. And then there is the opposite side of that equation with Dee. She won the game and deserves every one of those million dollars… or at least the half of that she will get after taxes. But had Katurah not gotten spooked and changed her vote at the last second, Dee never would have gotten there. Instead, she would have been voted out in fifth place.

And what happens then? Does Julie win Survivor? Does Austin? All we know is, it ain’t Dee! The remarkable thing about this entire sequence of events at the final five Tribal is that Katurah was absolutely desperate to get Dee out. She’s the one who convinced Jake to change his vote from Julie to Dee. And she did it! She convinced him! But then, worried that a plan might be in place to take her out instead (there wasn’t), Katurah switched to Julie at the last second, and that one decision handed Dee a million dollars.

The worst part about all of this for Katurah is that she predicted exactly how all of this would go. If left together, Dee and Austin would ride it out all the way to the end. This was the one chance to break them up. Katurah saw it! She knew what had to be done! She convinced someone else to join her! And then she bailed on her plan and was forced to watch her biggest nightmare come true. Well… that’s not entirely accurate. Katurah’s biggest nightmare would be getting teamed up with Bruce Perreault for the next season of The Amazing Race. (Note to CBS: Please make this happen IMMEDIATELY!) But outside of that, watching her game go down due to her own vote has to be tough. But it’s incredible what a pivotal move that vote happened to be, and how it essentially crowned the winner of Survivor 45.

Okay, a few other odds and ends to hit on from this three-hour finale….

<p>CBS</p> The 'Survivor 45' final five


The 'Survivor 45' final five

Remember when…?

Pretty interesting that in the season that brought back the “Previously on…” recaps, we did not get a recap of the entire season for the finale. Boooooooo! I love those. Give me some Brandon struggling to get up a ladder! Let me see Sifu referring to himself in the third person! Put me down for as much alien pyramid talk as you can find! I feel like those season-long finale recaps really do serve to remind the viewer of everything the final five had to navigate to get there.

I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Austin, Dee, and Jake talking about the jury during the day 26 breakfast feast, because you know what this was, right? It was the freakin’ Rites of Passage! If Jake was a self-proclaimed wolf in goat’s clothes, then this was the Rites of Passage in glossy, slow-motion, glamour-shot, new-era Survivor clothes.

I’ll admit I had a love/hate relationship with the Rites of Passage segment back in the day. Hate, because it took up so much damn time. Love, because there has never ever been anything funnier in the Survivor universe than the final contestants having to wax poetic about someone they never met who was voted out by another tribe on day 3 of the game. Inject that content directly into my veins and let me ride the lightning, baby!

<p>CBS</p> Austin Li Coon on 'Survivor 45'


Austin Li Coon on 'Survivor 45'

Moving targets

I really liked both final immunity challenges because they had contestants on the move, and I’ve always been a fan of the three-tier power puzzle. There is a trick to that one, by the way. Instead of trying to line up all six columns, line up five as close to the same height as possible (does not have to be exact) and then see how tall the stack of remaining pieces is. If the remaining stack is shorter, that means the other five are too tall and you adjust accordingly and this helps you realize what your target height is for all the columns. I’ve done this puzzle a few times that way and it went pretty quickly (unlike the first time I did it without and it took forever).

Survivor has ended on a stacking challenge a few times in the past, and even when the result does not end up being close (as in here), you still get the great drama and comedy of people’s stacks falling. It just makes for good television. And when people then stomp right on top of it like a giant sasquatch, it becomes great television.

<p>CBS</p> Julie Alley on 'Survivor 45'


Julie Alley on 'Survivor 45'

Mama J said knock you out

Nobody wanted to face her in the finals, but how would Julie have done had she gotten there? The fact that she didn’t win any challenges doesn’t matter because juries have proven time and time again that they care more about whether they should order a Fiji Gold or a Vonu with their dinner than they do about challenge wins. Her one concrete big move was saving herself with the hidden immunity idol, but that was really Dee’s move more than hers.

However, she is Mama J, and the fact that nobody wanted to face her in the finals tells you she definitely had a shot at the million. Had Katurah not changed her vote, she may have won it all. Still, she has to be happy with the way her Survivor adventure went, especially at a stage of her life when she was looking for an adventure. She got it.

<p>CBS</p> The 'Survivor 45' jury of Kaleb Gebrewold, Kellie Nalbandian, Kendra McQuarrie, Bruce Perreault, Emily Flippen, and Drew Basile


The 'Survivor 45' jury of Kaleb Gebrewold, Kellie Nalbandian, Kendra McQuarrie, Bruce Perreault, Emily Flippen, and Drew Basile

Judging the jury

First off, props to the jury for all the amazing facial expressions they busted out on a weekly basis. Granted, Kellie and Kendra did most of the heavy lifting in that department, so I would like to thank them for their service.

Of course, you all know what my complaint about the final Tribal will be: Once again, the jury played a little too nice. I’m not saying folks need to go scorched earth in their questions — although I personally would love that — but at least make the finalists uncomfortable. See how they react. Don’t let them skate by with non-answers or faulty claims. Which is why Emily is unsurprisingly my jury MVP. Anytime someone asks “Can I push back on that?” it is a good thing, and there were a few different points where Emily kept the finalists honest and made them fight for her vote.

I hope more people in the future follow her lead. Jeff Probst specifically instructed the jury of Survivor 44 last season to challenge the final three… and they promptly ignored him. Listen to the man, future contestants!

<p>CBS</p> The 'Survivor 45' final five


The 'Survivor 45' final five

The After-Show

I will never budge from the position that a live reunion after the players — all of the players — have watched the season and can react to what they saw is a better product then an after-show where the second and third place finishers are still reeling and people haven’t seen what other folks said about them, and a chunk of the cast is not even there. (Also, yes, we want to see what the players look like once out of the wild and get life updates — like what’s up with Austin and Dee? — that can’t be answered 10 minutes after final Tribal Council ends.)

I will repeat my previous suggestion that if they want to keep doing the after-show (because I will never ever complain about more Survivor content), they should also do a reunion after the finale airs and put it on Paramount+ and watch those streaming subscriptions pile up.

I will say this: The jury was having so much fun with all that champagne and all that pizza, it looked like a party one wanted to join. And it was nice to see them all exhale and let loose after an intense 26 days. I don’t believe in astrology for a single second, but I could listen to Kendra talk about it all day long. And watching the awkwardness between Emily and Bruce as she talked about blowing him up at the marooning and then not only lying to him and voting him out but celebrating his ouster was good stuff. All that said, I STILL WANT MY REUNION!

<p>CBS</p> 'Survivor 46' logo


'Survivor 46' logo

Coming up next…

We got our first look at Survivor 46, and the Hostmaster General told me a little something about it, which you can read for yourself. I can’t say a lot right now, but I will give you this: I was supposed to go on location for Survivor 45 but got COVID, so went out for 46 instead and met the contestants in person. And I loved, loved, loved this cast. So many big personalities and just interesting people. And what I saw in those first few days of the game? Good stuff. Really good. I can’t wait to watch it play out, and I hope this cast lives up to my admittedly high expectations — especially coming after what I feel is the best produced season of new era Survivor.

But hold on a minute. We’re not even close to being done with Survivor 45. Were three hours not enough? Fine! We have more! We have an exclusive deleted scene from the finale, and it has your name on it. We also tracked down Jeff Probst to get his thoughts on everything that went down, including Jake breaking the challenge. And we also need to hear from the final five themselves, so make sure to check out my exit interviews with Dee, Austin, Jake, Katurah, and Julie.

Once all that is done, so shall conclude my coverage of Survivor 45. This is my 45th season of writing about this show, so a big thanks to readers who have been here for over two decades with me, as well as those who just recently joined the club. It is an honor and privilege to serve. May your holidays be happy, your stockings stuffed full of buffs, and dreams of sugar plums, reindeer, dreidels, and Survivor Sally knee socks dancing in your head. Until 2024, this is Dalton Ross signing off with his final scoop of the crispy. That’s showbiz, baby!

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