“Have you ever seen so much love at a merge?” exclaimed Chrissy as buffs were dropped and the remaining twelve castaways donned themselves in vibrant purple.
Two days later, ecstasy and delight had degraded into paranoia and fear. In the lead-up to the first merge Tribal Council, Ben warned, “War is not a pretty thing, and it’s not going to be pretty tonight either ‘cause we’re going to war tonight.” How did it all change so quickly?
The merge is always a highly-anticipated cornerstone of a Survivor season, as all the machinations of the pre-merge explode into a new conflict that sets the board for the second stage of the game. Both the players and the audience hunger for the milestone, and then rapidly realise the gravity of what it means – nobody is safe because anything is possible with this many people all playing their own games.
As the Heroes, Healers and Hustlers clashed on the new Solewa beach, battle lines were drawn as relationships from both original and swapped tribes were tested, new coalitions were formed, and the castaways scrambled for a place on the winning side of the pivotal merge vote.
“THIS IS THE PLAYOFFS NOW”
As often happens with a merge, the tribes come together with disparate priorities, and it was refreshing that this season we got a little teeny taste of those motivations before buffs were dropped. The undefeated Yawa 5 were confident in their numbers, whilst Chrissy celebrated her social standing in the decimated Soko tribe, anticipating that it set her up well for the future. Levu was decimated for another reason – a total lack of food leaving the players scraping a few grains of sugar for breakfast. Despite the dangerous 2-2 split in the tribe, food was the priority as Devon shambled like a zombie through camp and sprawled in the sand for an inventive drone shot.
The merge offered a salve for all these worries, however, as Jeff sent the new Solewa tribe to an Outback Steakhouse for a healthy dose of product placement. With food in their bellies, the Levu tribe were brought up to speed as the other two tribes basked in new opportunities and it wasn’t long before the battle lines were drawn.
On one side, the Healers, who hoped to gain the majority through their Yawa ties with Ben and Lauren. As Jessica solidified that Desi and Joe were still collaborating and would be willing to team up with the Yawa numbers, the alliance seemed sturdy – but it could not contend with the strength of the reunited bonds across enemy lines.
It has been speculated for a few weeks now that the merge could lead to a Hero-Hustler alliance against the Healers, with the new alliances on the swap tribes consisting predominantly of red-blue connections: Ashley & Devon; Chrissy, JP & Ryan; Ben & Lauren. With secret pre-swap partnerships between Ryan & Devon and Ben & Chrissy also brought back together, this natural coalition fell into place like puzzle pieces.
The only trouble? Ben & Lauren found themselves in both alliances.
A THOUSAND PERCENT TOGETHER
This was another breakout episode for Ben, as his relationships – positive and negative – seemed to be the deciding factor in the vote. He had the promise of a solid five with Yawa, but between patty cakes and cinnamon sticks, Cole continued to rub Ben the wrong way to drive a wedge into the prospective majority. But it wasn’t sunshine and roses on the other side either, where Ben’s closest – and secret – ally Chrissy almost blew their cover talking game at the merge feast. Grappling with the difficulty of distinguishing tactical gameplay from emotional impulse, Ben took the right path by listening to everybody and weighing up his options, even if it meant tolerating Cole’s selfish eating habits. However, playing the middle is a dangerous game – and as word seeped out that Cole and Joe were targets for the Hero-Hustler alliance, Joe raised the warning flag of Ben potentially flipping. That heat could burn Ben in future, but for this vote, even Joe got caught “sipping the Ben juice” as the Marine’s navigation of the merge dynamic managed to mask his ultimate decision.
Lauren, meanwhile, seemed much more cut and dry, vocally planning to stay Yawa strong. As Devon initially laid out a plan for a Hustler-Hero coalition, she was reticent at best – for her, Mike was a better long-term option. Although Ben and Lauren ended up as the swing votes, the important third party in their decision was Mike, their strongest link to the Healers and the biggest ally they stood to lose if they flipped to work with their original tribes. Both Lauren and Ben leaked the Hero-Hustler plans to Mike, but with Lauren reporting the intel while Ben seemed to pitch the idea of cutting out Cole, at which Healer Mike understandably balked.
Ultimately, though, it was a decision for the two Yawa outcasts – work with the Yawa plan, where they would be outnumbered by the Healers, or side with the rag-tag group of Heroes and Hustlers. Over the course of the episode, they bantered the ideas back and forth as a hypothetical, but Lauren repeatedly recalled that they’d made a “vow” to stick with Yawa and Mike. However, as Tribal Council loomed, it couldn’t be about that teamwork – they had to play for themselves.
Ultimately, they chose to side with the Hero-Hustler alliance – and this decision was the best for their game. Siding with five Healers would have been dangerous numerically, and even with the Yawa 5, Ben and Lauren were still outnumbered. Flipping to work with the patchwork alliance of the Heroes and Hustlers gives them both more maneuverability moving forward, and if they can mitigate the betrayal, it may also serve to sever Mike’s loyalty to the Healers, possibly giving them a tighter trio in the days ahead.
The Healers, too, were scrambling to play for themselves, each using different tactics to advance their games. For a tribe dominant physically and numerically, the variety of approaches to the game is stark and betrays a possible incompatibility that could surface moving forward. Desi took the path of least resistance, coming back into the Healer fold “as long as it’s beneficial” and emerging victorious at the first Individual Immunity. Side note: this is the first challenge to migrate from Australian Survivor to the flagship series, and given the ingenuity of the SurvivorAU challenges, hopefully, the first of many more!). While Mike tried to manage his non-Healer allies and was faced with the realisation that everyone was playing as hard as he was, Jessica was stuck managing Cole, having to sit him down and warn him not to help himself to food whenever he felt like it – which, really, is Survivor 101.
Cole is such a peculiar blend of awareness and obliviousness. On the one hand, he came into the merge with a keen eye open for any hidden advantages amongst the bountiful supplies (although he did not spot the note amongst the bundle of nails this episode, that will surely come back into the fold in weeks to come). On the other – and in the more critical element of the social game – he’s a disaster. His selfish eating habits, his obvious showmancing with Jessica, even his apparent shock that his name is in contention for the merge boot – it all betrays a key lack of understanding of how Survivor works. Yes, Survivor can be like climbing a mountain one step at a time – but you’re not going to come out on top if you don’t pay attention to which way you’re going. Cole tried to course correct with an apology to Ben, but it was too little too late, and with his eggs wholly in the Healer basket, losing Jessica is the gear slip he feared.
The last Healer on the board is perhaps the most aggressive player in the group – and if you didn’t know that he’s a strategist, he’ll be sure to tell you. Joe’s approach to the game is full-throttle, and I respect his willingness to leave his all on the field. However, his over-confidence, arrogance and brash theatrics seem like the inevitable signposts along the road to defeat. From making obnoxious first impressions at the merge feast (though, “Three desserts and two steaks” is a beautiful line reading), his casual reveal about the Idol play to Ben & Chrissy, his continued assertions that he “sees —- before other people do” and is a master strategist to his bluster with his Idol misplay, Joe made misstep after misstep in this merge episode. Heading into the merge, Joe had attended one Tribal Council, where he managed to pick the right side of a 50:50 gamble with his first Idol, but that one success saw him grow too confident in his own capabilities. When he tried to use the same tricks at this Tribal, making a scene and flaunting his Idol, it didn’t work because his opponents had seen that show before and orchestrated a Plan B.
Joe is great for TV – a no-holds-barred bundle of energy. Yet tactically, so far he’s a one-trick pony, and he’s got a long way to go to become the great strategist he proclaims himself to be. This embarrassing blindside might be enough to push his strategy to evolve – and he’ll need that fresh start.
THE QUEEN BEES
But we can’t talk about the Healers’ defeat without talking about the woman who orchestrated the move. Chrissy’s rise to power – from Mom Squad to Mob Boss – has been one of the most fascinating narratives of the season. For an older woman to come into modern Survivor and wrangle control of an alliance is an impressive feat, and she’s clearly got the strategic chops to back it up. Having barely known Joe for more than two steaks, she correctly assesses that there is a high chance he could have found a second Idol – particularly after Joe lets it slip that it was the Soko Idol he played pre-merge, leaving the Levu Idol unaccounted. As the afternoon before Tribal reaches the pointy end, she’s the one to put a Plan B on the table in case Joe was to act out, possibly saving himself and/or Cole. Although she’s not the one to throw Jessica’s name in the mix, it was clearly the plan she was driving towards, and in the end, she read the room, made her calculations and solved for x. Nice math, Chrissy.
However, an increasing number of warning flags are being hoisted as Chrissy’s intelligence becomes more overt. Her confidence is soaring – she’s yet to be on the wrong side of a vote, and she knows it. Just as Joe’s overconfidence led him astray this episode, so too could it betray Chrissy. Furthermore, between her quick math at the challenge (Desi and Ashley lasted “eleven hundred and change” times longer than Ryan), her growing reputation as a talker and a smart cookie to watch, she could easily find herself in hot water. It almost happened tonight as the Healers set their sights on who they perceived to be the biggest strategic threat amongst the Hero-Hustler group. Going forward, she will need to actively manage her threat level if she wants to make it to the end – but there’s no mistaking this woman is here to play.
Another woman who was out on the Island to play hard was lost tonight, and perhaps it was because she lost sight of that ultimate goal. Jessica was a fascinating contender, caught between her head and her heart as she tried to navigate the game. She had an understanding of strategy and a lot of potential in her corner – but she got sidelined with dangerous allies that were ultimately her undoing. By hitching her wagon to Cole, even after he repeatedly betrayed her trust (and even did so again this episode by revealing the Yawa 5 pact to Joe), she painted a target on her back that could have been entirely avoided if she had managed to separate the tactical game from emotional bonds – a tall order in a game as social and challenging as Survivor.
Jessica put up a good fight tonight, working to bring Desi and Joe back on board and trying to keep the peace between Ben and Cole. Unfortunately, she became the victim of convenience due to how openly Cole and Joe became threats. Nevertheless, Jessica was a queen bee for a minute on Survivor but could stand to be a YASS QUEEN in the hearts of many Survivor fans for years to come.
“IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT TONIGHT”
With all the talk of drawing battle lines and the wars to come, it’s no surprise that Jessica’s blindside is only the first shot fired in what promises to be a rambunctious merge. Although the new Hero-Hustler coalition holds a 7-4 advantage, a Pagonging is not certain.
Mike still holds an Idol in his pocket – and from what we’ve seen, that secret died with Jessica. His strong ties to Ben & Lauren could also be his way out. Joe seems bound to pick up the Idol scent again, or perhaps he’ll turn his energy towards a new method of stirring the pot – whilst Desi and Cole remain physical threats who could maneuver their way ahead with some timely challenge wins. On the other side, Chrissy’s target is now a blinking neon sign – not to mention whatever hubbub is going down in the preview for next week’s episode.
The game is still live, and if this merge episode is anything to go by, there’s more in store. As Ben put it, there’ll be “blindsides, lies and I’m sure someone’s gonna cry.” Hopefully, for us at home, they’ll be tears of joy.
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