Survivor Season 45’s Finale Shows Us That Sometimes Winners Win

The finale of Survivor Season 45 was better than I thought it would be, to be honest!

After Tribal Council, Austin Li Coon forgives Dee Balladares for leaving him out of the Drew Basile vote almost immediately. It’s surprising and intriguing that Dee seems closer than ever with Austin after essentially stabbing him in the back. Dee owns her choices 100%, in such a way that to be disappointed with her seems illogical and even more so, not even a viable option. Everyone seems to feel that way about Dee — Austin most of all.

Except Katurah Topps, who for a while now has been saying they’ve got to get Dee out. Katurah and Dee seem to see each other; they are playing very different games, but they’re both playing very hard. Where Dee asserts her dominance and justifies it with unwavering confidence, Katurah keeps a low profile, making sure people always want to pull her in for a vote. And Katurah, it seems, can make everyone smile — she’s just fun to be around. I think sometimes we don’t like to admit that likeability is actually a huge factor in a game like Survivor. (Imagine being starving, exhausted, AND forced to hang out with someone annoying!)

But Katurah’s simmering strategy and playful charisma aren’t even my favorite thing about her. My favorite thing about Katurah is that she never, ever, ever gives up on herself.

But anyway, back to the episode! Through a convoluted series of tasks, Jake O’Kane secures an advantage to the second to last immunity challenge of the season — needless to say, a very valuable asset at this key moment. However, in the immunity challenge, Jake fumbles not once but twice with truly hard-to-watch brainfarts, ultimately losing the challenge to Austin.

It’s an immunity and reward challenge, so Austin gets to pick someone to bring with him. I thought he’d bring Dee, because, well, I think he’s in love with her, but he brings Jake! At the reward, Jake tells Austin about his idol, and people, you know what I always say, never tell anyone about your idol! I feel for Jake in this moment — he seems desperate to do something important in this game, but an underlying freneticism keeps pushing him toward unstrategic moves.

Back on the beach, with Julie Alley, Dee and Katurah, Katurah is campaigning hard to get out Dee. But Julie doesn’t want to; she wants to go to the end with Dee and Katurah, so that she can show that she kept her most important alliance in tact the whole time. So the gals seem to align on voting out Jake, because, well, why not.

When Austin and Jake return to camp, Austin immediately tells his wife friend Dee about Jake’s idol. So now Dee wants to vote Katurah, because Jake will in theory play the idol on himself. Things get increasingly scrambled at this point, and by the time we get to Tribal Council, I’m truly not sure who is voting for whom.

In the end, the votes are all over the place. Jake does play his idol: In a misguided attempt to make a flashy move, he plays it on Katurah, who is understandably completely thrown by this, because why on earth would you not tell her you’re gonna do that?? Katurah, Dee, Jake, and Julie all get one vote, and we know that Katurah, who had been set on voting Dee, changed her mind at the last second. Katurah votes for Julie instead of Dee, sending Julie home. It’s hard not to wonder, right then and there, if this was Katurah’s million dollar mistake.

On Julie’s way out the door, in a particularly poignant moment, she tells Katurah to go to law school. For this whole season, neither Julie nor Katurah has revealed that they are lawyers. But Julie sees in Katurah what we all see in Katurah: her biting tongue, her big picture thinking, and most of all, her indefatigable spirit. Of course she’d make a great lawyer.

Back at camp, chaos ensues over such a messy vote. Next thing we know, it’s time for the final immunity challenge of the season. As Jeff explains it to the remaining four contestants, Dee grins ear-to-ear; it’s a wildly difficult agility and balance challenge and, simply put, she knows she’s gonna win. And she does. It’s not even close. Just like that, Dee is in final three, like we always knew she would be.

With the new era of Survivor, final three is determined by fire-making. The winner of immunity chooses one person to take with them to Final Three, and the remaining two battle it out in fire making. At first, I didn’t like this change — Survivor is a social game, and then all the sudden, at arguably the most crucial moment, it becomes about… making fire???

That said, this was the first time I actually really liked this set up, because it highlighted how making fire is as much a skill as it is a manifestation — a will to get it freaking DONE when you really need to. Though she oscillates, it seems pretty clear that Dee will bring Austin to the end with her (in her mind, the honorable choice at the end of an honorably played game). So Katurah and Jake will make fire.

At first Katurah is overwhelmed and scared — who wouldn’t be! Your whole fate rests on some twigs and flint. But, like she always does, she steels herself:

“But, I am Katurah. And I can usually do things that I don’t know how to do or that I find difficult.”

Survivor Season 45 contestant Katurah Topps looks off-camera, determined, while saying, “But… I am Katurah.”

She prepares herself to fight as hard as possible for herself, like she’s done throughout this season and, so it seems, her whole dang life. She knows she has a low chance of winning. But goddammit if she isn’t gonna try her hardest anyway.

At Tribal, Dee does in fact choose Austin, and Jake and Katurah go to fire. Also, it’s worth noting that neither Austin nor Dee wanted to be next to Katurah at Final Three, because she’s such a good storyteller and played such a unique game, so Austin essentially tutored Jake on making fire. And apparently the fire lessons paid off, because Jake wins. It’s heartbreaking to watch Katurah go home so close to the end.

She gives a beautiful and heartbreaking monologue where she finally tells the whole jury that actually she is a lawyer, and in real life, she’s very planned and meticulous. But she wanted to try to play this game just as Katurah, leading with her heart. I teared up!! Good for you, Katurah!!

After one last night at camp, we’re at Final Tribal. It’s pretty clear that it’s between Austin and Dee, because unfortunately, Jake isn’t able to deliver, which sadly feels like his theme for the season. Kellie Nalbandian wants to “see Dee and Austin go at it,” and frankly Kellie, I agree!!!

And they really do. It’s a gorgeous, passionate, charged verbal show-down between two people that played great games, who also may want to marry each other one day. For a while, it almost looks like Austin is gonna win because to be honest, he’s a great talker! And Dee is shooting herself in the foot now and then, talking about luck when she should be talking about the fact that she had an iron-clad grip on every freaking vote in this season.

But financial analyst Emily Flippen makes sure we know who the winner is — she asks about the very vote that got her out. Austin confidently explains that even though he told Dee they were voting Julie (which everyone told him not to do), she never told Julie so it didn’t impact his game at all. And that’s when we see, in real-time, Dee reveal that actually she HAD told Julie. And Julie did exactly what Dee told her to do. I’m sorry Austin, you got played! What I love about this moment is Austin’s reaction — he smiles, almost coyly, almost like he’s proud of Dee. Because damn, that’s amazing.

When the votes come in, Austin gets three, and Dee gets the remaining five. Like I said so early on, this game was seemingly always Dee’s to win, and she won it. In some ways, it’s almost boring because it’s predictable. But when I really reflect on it, it’s anything but. Dee won with strength, strategy, and social finesse, all while cleaving to her morals and without making a single enemy. She fell into a showmance, and she managed to both keep that relationship in tact, AND not let it affect her strategy! She outfitted, outlasted, and outplayed every single person, and never even got a single finger (or toe) dirty. Well done.

What did you think of the Survivor finale and this season overall? Let me know in the comments!

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Anya Richkind

Anya is a writer, a Pisces, and a huge fan of Survivor. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner Jess and their kittens, Buckett and Tubbs. She writes a substack called Questions I Have in which she explores questions big, small, medium, and more. Check it out here:

Anya has written 37 articles for us.


  1. It may not a million but Katurah is being given $100,000 by the musician Sia (I had not previously heard of Sia’s fun rich person habit of announcing she’s giving cash to her favourite contestants), so that’s neat.

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