For starters, there was a savvy and savage move by winner Dee Valladares — not informing her showmance partner Austin Li Coon until they were both sitting in front of the jury that she had gone behind his back and told Julie Alley to play her immunity idol at the final seven.
There was also the remarkable fact that Dee was even at final Tribal Council to begin with after Katurah Topps — who was desperate to get Dee out — changed her vote at the last minute because she did not trust Jake O’Kane to go through with their plan. Speaking of Jake, the Boston attorney had the ultimate roller coaster ride during the finale, which included winning an advantage, forgetting keys, and losing a puzzle piece during the same challenge, having his big idol play blow up in his face, being disqualified from the final immunity challenge, and finally getting his big moment in a fire-making victory.
EW spoke with the host and showrunner in an exclusive interview to cover all that and more from the Survivor 45 finale. (Be sure to also check out our chat with the host about the next season of Survivor.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Dee Valladares becomes the winner of Survivor 45. What was the secret to her success?
JEFF PROBST: I love when you ask me questions that you know I will answer even though I have absolutely no insight from which to inform my answer. There were some really terrific players this season, so Dee’s win is impressive. I thought Dee played a tremendous overall game, which is key to getting deep, but if I had to highlight just one thing that stood out, it would be the pace with which she played.
She did a really good job of ebbing and flowing based on the momentum of each day. In the early days, she focused on cementing a solid alliance with Julie, Austin, and Drew. As the game progressed, she decided she could trust that alliance enough to carve out an even deeper alliance with Julie. She continued to pay attention and recognize when the game was shifting to another stage, and that is what she based her decisions on.
She really didn’t make a big push to take over until late in the game when she could envision a path to the final four. That approach worked for Dee, it might not be the right approach for someone else. The key to playing this game is playing the game that works for you. It’s so hard to be courageous enough to trust your gut because fear can invade and you worry about making the wrong move, but ultimately it is the only path.
I think Dee’s best move may have been her last one — not telling Austin until that final Tribal Council that she had told Julie to play her idol — since that made Austin appear to the jury like he did not know what was actually going on. What was your reaction in the moment when she dropped that bombshell?
I think you nailed it. And you’re not alone. When we talked to Dee on our podcast, On Fire, Rick Devens made the same observation, and Dee confirmed that was her strategy! I thought it was brilliant insight from Devens, so I have to give you the same credit! As for me, I was more focused on my job of running final Tribal, so the impact of her move didn’t fully land with me until I watched it back later during editing.
Katurah got cold feet at that first Tribal Council and, at the last minute, changed her vote from Dee to Julie. How differently does the endgame play out if Katurah keeps her vote on Dee, whom she really wanted out to begin with?
Katurah and Jake blew it. Jake wanted to make a big move in front of the jury, so he withheld valuable information from Katurah — that he was going to play the idol for her. And Katurah was never able to fully trust Jake, for obvious reasons, so she switched her vote. The combination of those two moves was probably the biggest unforced error of the game. The result was positive for Dee and negative for Julie. If Julie is there in the end instead of Dee, I think she wins.
Jake got so frustrated after his cups fell that he actually broke the final immunity challenge, even after you warned him about it. What was going on there? And has anyone ever experienced more game highs and lows than Jake? He certainly got the full Survivor experience!
I loved having Jake on the show. He was so open with his feelings during the game. He shared the struggles he has overcome in his personal life, and he never gave up, not for one second of his 26 days. You can’t ask for more from a player. His victory in the final four fire-making challenge was clearly important and symbolic and I felt it was a perfect ending to his Survivor adventure.
Now that it is all said and done, what will you remember most about this season?
From a player standpoint, I put this group up with any group. They were outstanding to watch, fun for me to interact with, they embraced every part of the game, and they gave us a truly entertaining season of Survivor. From a production standpoint, I was really proud of our team for delivering on 90-minute episodes. It is no small feat and I was really happy with how the season turned out.
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