SPOILER ALERT: This recap contains spoilers from the Season 45 premiere of “Survivor.”
Every episode of “Survivor” contains a healthy handful of platitudes about how wild the game is, and the Season 45 premiere is no different. But when Jeff Probst says that he doesn’t know if he’s ever seen so much energy from a new cast, a shot of a contestant open-mouth sobbing before the first challenge has even begun makes it hard to disagree.
Among the first personalities to stand out are Jake, the lawyer-bartender-theater teacher dreaming of moving out of his grandmother’s house; Brandon, the tearful superfan who loves the game of “Survivor” more than anything; and Emily, who feels the opposite: “If I’m not gonna win the game, I would rather be the first person voted off. It’s a complete waste of time if you’re not the sole survivor. Excuse me for being honest.” She wields that honesty the second she meets her competition.
One of Jeff’s first questions for the group goes to Bruce, who hit his head and sustained a concussion mere minutes into the first challenge last season and had to be evacuated from the game. When Jeff asks how his experience may differ from everyone else’s as he returns for his second chance to play, he says that his only insider information is that “the dream is the freaking reality, and this is awesome.” Tame enough.
Without needing to be called on, Emily blurts out that she does still think Bruce has an advantage, but he maintains that “any advantage you bring to the game is you.” Emily finds that answer to be “contradictory,” and adds, “But you see this? He’s already talking with authority. He’s already giving instruction.” Emily’s strategy here is unclear: Bruce isn’t on her tribe, so she won’t be able to lobby people to vote him out anytime soon. Even Jeff seems stunned. After an awkward pause, he offers a simple, “Love it.”
Jeff gives the tribes their names — the read team is Reba, the yellow team is Lulu and the blue team is Belo — and introduces the first challenge. Two players from each tribe must race to empty a crate full of rope and sandbags, revealing a key. Another pair must jump off of the barge the players are currently standing on, swim to a small boat that holds another key, then paddle back to the barge and climb it. The last pair must use the keys to retrieve two poles, which can be used to retrieve a set of camp supplies suspended high in the air. The first tribe to complete the challenge receives a pot, a machete and a flint to take home and set up a shelter with.
Led by Austin and Sifu, Reba starts off strong, though Lulu’s Kaleb and Sabiyah aren’t far behind. Sean and Brandon are Lulu’s second pair, and they make quick work of the second stage of the challenge until they reach the base of the barge, where Brandon struggles to climb the ladder and directs Sean to pass ahead of him. The other tribes catch up, and Drew and Dee of Reba end up neck-and-neck with Kendra and Brando of Belo, while Sean goes back to help a barely conscious Brandon up the ladder. He finally makes it up, then flops onto the barge, crawls towards his teammates and passes out. The camera cuts between competition shots — Reba ultimately clinches the win — and increasingly worrisome shots of Brandon lying face-down on the ground.
With a weirdly minimal amount of attention paid to Brandon — who later confesses that he doesn’t even remember making it back onto the barge — Jeff explains that two members from both Belo and Lulu must compete in another challenge to earn their camp supplies. Everyone else goes back to camp, except Brandon, who is finally sent to see some medical professionals.
The red-wearing Reba players celebrate their win back at camp. At 49, Julie is the oldest player of the season and plays the part of sweet team mom — until she gets a moment alone with the camera and confesses that she lied to everyone about being an art teacher (she’s actually a lawyer) and is playing a stealthier game than it seems. As she puts it, “Who wants to give a million dollars to an attorney?”
Brando and Jake go represent Belo in the Smart vs. Savvy challenge, while the blue-buffed Bruce, Kendra, Kellie and Katurah immediately bond over their shared shock at Emily’s behavior earlier in the day. But Emily may have been right about a few things. Up until this point, Bruce has come off as rather mild-mannered. But he immediately tells his teammates, all women in their early-mid 30s that he, at 47, would rather act as their “crazy, drunk uncle” than their dad, and doesn’t want to tell anyone what to do. Cue: a montage of Bruce telling everyone what to do. The women, especially Kendra, are less than enthused.
In sweat-stained yellow, Lulu is already dealing with dysfunction far beyond Brandon’s fainting spell. Emily says that before discussing anything else, she wants to point out how suspicious it is that Kaleb and Sabiyah volunteered for Sweat v. Savvy — while also mentioning that no one else raised their hands. Trying to have a good time, Sean and Hannah shrug off the comment, and avoid eye contact.
Sweat vs. Savvy goes terribly for all involved. Neither Brando and Jake nor Kaleb and Sabiyah finish their puzzles in time after hauling 40 logs across the beach, and all go home empty-handed.
Emily immediately assumes that Kaleb and Sabiyah conspired against the rest of Lulu and opted to skip getting camp supplies in favor of a secret advantage. It doesn’t take Kaleb and Sabiyah long to hear about everything Emily has said about them, but they know they don’t have much to worry about. Emily rants about her team “patting themselves on the back for building the world’s worst ‘Survivor’ shelter,” and she’s incredulous as Kaleb and Sabiyah try to engage her in small talk about whether aliens could have built the Pyramids. Everyone’s getting tired of her negativity. Meanwhile, Brandon and Hannah vent to each other about how hard “Survivor” already is. Brandon gets a morale boost from their shared misery, but Hannah, experiencing nicotine withdrawal, only gets more upset.
Back at Belo, the women are scheming. Kendra tells Katurah and Kellie that Jake would be her first choice to vote out because he’s a lawyer. In a confessional, Katurah has already said she plans to lie about the fact that she’s a lawyer too, and she doubles down after hearing Kendra’s idea. When Jake gets back from Smart vs. Savvy, she sits next to him and asks what his job is like. “Scary,” he says with an absurdly wide grin. Further along in her career than Jake is, Katurah giggles and plays dumb.
For the most part, Reba continues riding high. They have the supplies to build a solid shelter, and Austin manages to find a Beware Advantage. A note tells him that if he chooses to read on, he has to do whatever he’s told, and he moves forward: He receives a clue towards the location of a hidden immunity idol, but won’t be allowed to vote in tribal councils until he finds it. The first step is to decipher a code etched onto the Reba flag. Austin goes undetected in his hunt, though Sifu makes a huge blunder. While searching for an idol and spying on his teammates, he bounds between obvious hiding places until he gets caught by Dee, Julie and J. He tries to say he was just messing with them, but no one believes it.
Finally, it’s time for all three tribes to participate in an immunity challenge. One at a time, players must climb up a ramp and slide down into a mud pit, then crawl through the mud under a wooden platform. Once everyone is through, the teams must carry a weighted bag of coconuts toward a basket, which they toss coconuts into until the basket is heavy enough to fall, releasing a set of keys. Then, the teams climb to the top of a wall, where their keys will unlock a puzzle. The last group to finish their puzzle has to go to tribal council and vote out one of their own.
Belo wins the challenge, and finally earns a set of camp supplies. With Brandon taking another hard fall and needing Kaleb’s help to scale the wall, the yellow tribe becomes, as Kaleb puts it, the “Lulu losers.”
Preparing for tribal council, Brandon starts to panic. He knows he’s bad at challenges but he isn’t ready to go home yet, and confesses to Kaleb and Sabiyah that he plans to play his Shot in the Dark, wherein a player forfeits their vote for a one-in-six chance at immunity. Kaleb is thrown — he was looking forward to getting rid of Emily, but if Brandon doesn’t trust them to keep him safe, maybe they shouldn’t. No one seems to notice that Hannah has been screaming from the rafters about how badly she wants to sleep in a real bed that night.
At tribal council, Emily tells Jeff about how dangerously inseparable she feels Kaleb and Sabiyah have become, which surprises them. “I feel like I’m taking kind of a whooping,” Sabiyah replies. “Me and Kaleb have not once begged to be in an estranged role.” This is a complicated moment, especially in the season premiere when we’ve just met these cast members. But Sabiyah, Kaleb and everyone in the cast watched Emily, who is white, immediately take a stand against Bruce, who is Black, having gotten a second chance. Kaleb and Sabiyah are also Black. So it seems pointed when Sabiyah finishes by saying: “Y’all have slapped us together since Day 1, and it hasn’t been our decision. Because you look at us that way, you have isolated yourself.”
But nothing comes of all the arguing. Because when it’s Hannah’s turn to speak, she points out that her teammates want to be there more than she does: “Everything in my body is like, ‘I’m not going back to that camp. Please don’t make me go back to that camp.’ I don’t need to be voted out to go home.” Jeff asks her to clarify what she’s “implying,” and she groans, “I don’t know how much more forthright I can be. I’m not bringing heart to this. I’m not! I’m not mentally here.”
It takes too long, but Jeff finally hears her pleas. After asking each other player if they’re okay with it, he snuffs her torch and puts her out of her misery. The tribe goes back to camp with two major liabilities — Emily and Brandon — still in tow.
Lulu, what will you do?