We’re halfway through this season, and that makes me sad. Not because it’s been a disappointment, but because everything from here on out will slowly approach the finale, and with it, bring on another year of waiting for the series to start up again next May. This season has reminded me why I watch Survivor religiously and devote so much passion towards this old reality-show that, yes, is still on 20 years later. This week’s merge brought the big guns to the battle, showcasing the social politics of the season, explaining the complex strategies, and highlighting some of the cast’s most entertaining characters, and capping it all off with an unpredictable result. And there was a bunch of amazing Steers product placement. What more could you want from a merge episode?
There were several big stories in play this week, but let’s start with the fallout from the last tribal. Dante returns to camp alive in the game but still furious nonetheless. Remember his first confessional of the season, the one given before he even got off the boat? It went, “My downfall in the game could be if I act on emotion.” Well, the man didn’t lie. I can’t blame Dante for being frustrated with being out of the loop and having his buttons pushed. But unlike Meryl, who recalculates and tries to get out of harm’s way, Dante continues to tear into Nicole, calling her unstable and emotional and yelling at her to go to bed.
For everyone’s sake, the conversation is called off until morning, so that everyone can get some rest and return to the debate refreshed. But a good night of sleep can’t repair something this broken. Nicole and Dante don’t want to budge or reconsider their perceptions of both themselves and each other. Dante thinks he’s this great guy being attacked and ridden by weaker players. And Nicole thinks she’s the hero of the season, even though she sniped Nathan out of nowhere and came back wearing his hat like the Predator carrying a trophy spine.
As the tribes meet, Rob is stunned to see Nathan gone and says it feels like a part of him left the island as well. Specifically, the part of him that was going to play nice. And it won’t be long before he’s given a chance to play hard and get bloody. The merge is here with snazzy orange-red buffs, a new tribe name of Manumalo (which translates to “winner” in Samoan), and 13 unique perspectives colliding for the first time in this game. And you know what else is here? Steers, because flame-grilled just tastes better and I’m getting way too invested in a fast-food chain on the opposite side of the world from me.
Anyways, it’s a day of feasting and swimming in a waterfall-filled pool. Merge feasts in US Survivor tend to be pretty quick and get looked over, unless they’re sponsored (remember Jessica Johnston experiencing the Thunder Down Under from Outback Steakhouse?). But because these episodes are longer, they have plenty of time to spend on this merge feast and the subsequent Samoan pool party. And you’d never realize how much strategizing goes down in this seemingly low-stakes environment. While the lactose intolerant Durao is chugging milkshakes, and slow-motion eating shots assault my eyes, the game is afoot.
Mike’s ready to lay low and let the numbers dwindle. Cobus is sitting back to watch people hurt their own games. Jacques strategically sits close to Dante and Meryl so he can casually get information from them. Meryl and Dante, on the other hand, use the pool party situation to forge new connections and repair old ones in plain sight, which doesn’t go unseen by Geoffrey. But Jacques is intrigued by the idea of using Dante for a few votes. After all, he’s short on allies, hardly a social threat after his public meltdowns, and can still act as a good shield due to his challenge strength. Dante might last a few more days than expected, but unless he seriously changes his tune, his chances of winning this season are nearly zero. Nearly, though, because last season proved you can be a pariah at the merge and still find a path to victory.
Meryl seems to be faring better than Dante. She’s quite literally working on people in the case of Durao, who receives a great massage on the beach as they discuss the state of the game. Unfortunately for Meryl, this tactic proves to be her downfall once everyone notices how well it might work. This duo of Meryl and Dante walked into the merge on death row, so there wasn’t much to be done, but I have to applaud them for getting on their feet and trying to survive, even if Meryl took the hit and Dante’s still out of the loop as a pawn in the Spit-Shake Seven’s plans.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey realizes he’s probably on the outs. Making a move on Nathan put him in the crosshairs of Rob and the other Amigos, and everyone knows he’s a strategic threat. It’s time for him to get to work and build some bonds. Or at least it would be if his reputation wasn’t so infamous. I made a point last week that Geoff’s been great at keeping his allies together but not so good at recruiting new numbers, and this episode proved it. He was so close to going home and would have if Meryl and Dante weren’t unanimously viewed as a strong duo. Nicole had the intention of working with him for the remainder of the tribal phase, but the merge threw that for a loop, and she ran right back to the Amigos, leaving the Laumei Trio as another minor grouping under the current reign of the Spit-Shakers.
Geoffrey’s been one to watch and pulled off some impressive stuff, but I feel like the snuffer is coming down on his torch any day now. Something big needs to shake up the power structure to save him, namely the ousting of Rob, who has positioned himself as the kingpin of the game with connections across tribal lines and an idol in his pocket. Without Nate, Rob’s feeling shaken and frazzled. This is his most vulnerable point thus far and now would be the time to strike, but whether or not anyone is willing to take a shot is another question.
Mike is the key in all this and has a good read on the game. He knows he’s caught between the Laumei Trio and the Spit-Shakers, and his choice will be crucial. If he sides with Geoff and Mmaba, he’d need to pull in at least four others to take the majority and hope nobody spills the beans and helps Rob idol out whoever he and his allies want. If he sides with the Spit-Shakers, he leaves his old allies to be voted out and leaves himself without options.
But by far, the biggest story of the week is, well… you know who it is. It’s Nicole. She is all over this episode, practically becoming the main character of the show out of nowhere. It’s been a bumpy ride for Nicole from the beginning. Ever since she met an old rival from a past pageant, she’s been faced with bizarre circumstances and unique dilemmas. Some even by her own creation when it came to blindsiding Nathan and cleaning up the mess she made. Her intentions to realign with the Amigos after the merge seemingly got her back into their good graces. But the sting of betrayal burns deep and long, especially for Rob, who’s sworn revenge on every Sa’ula 3.0 member, Nicole included, once they use her for some votes and get her idol.
As a Nicole fan, watching her beat around the bush and leave her former Amigos wondering for over a day was incredibly awkward. They seem to fear the worst, and giving Rob Nathan’s necklace at the merge feast doesn’t convince them otherwise and only raises more questions. Even when they have alone time to talk about what she did, Nicole seems to dance around the gravity of her choice. She says she feels like the villain, but didn’t want to own her decision and said it was happening with or without her. Except she had an idol, knew where the votes were going, and could have either teamed up with Dante and Meryl to take the majority or used her idol on Nathan. So saying Nathan was 100% doomed and couldn’t be saved is a bit of a stretch.
Nicole doesn’t feel like Rob fully trusts her, so she goes to Seipei, aka Mother Hen, and immediately gives her Nathan’s half of the immunity idol. Now, this is a good move. This is what might have saved Nicole from the chopping block at a future vote and earned her a spot in the endgame. As Seipei says, wearing her greatest outfit yet, “If I’m keeping the other half, Nicole is my other half. We’re married by idol.”
We’ve seen Seipei possess this magical control over people and the ability to get what she wants despite a strong personality, so if anyone could sway the votes to keep Nicole and the other half of the idol safe, it’s the biker queen. But there’s always a part of me that gets Lauren Rimmer flashbacks when someone hands away a part of an idol to build trust. Seipei isn’t the type to throw her half into a pit of fire, but Nicole got rid of her safety net and might not get it back when she needs it the most. But socially, it’s the right move and gets her back in the fold with her old allies, which I think she deserves credit for. Nicole campaigns her butt off and seems to dig herself out of the hole she threw herself in. But with Rob not fully on board with trusting her and Steffi more in line with the Spit-Shake Seven than the Amigos, Nicole still has work to do. Once the obvious outsiders like Geoff, Mmaba, and Dante are gone, she could be next. That’s still three votes to continue repairing her game, but it’s only three. Time is precious on Survivor, and she can’t waste it.
This week’s individual immunity challenge was a surprising highlight of the episode. Most of these early “stand there and balance on a beam” challenges aren’t typically good at giving us fun moments since the players in US Survivor are too focused to engage in fun banter, but this one was top tier. Once Cobus shouted “Hey, Smurf!” to a blue painted Dante, it was game on. Nicole spent upwards of two hours listing random food dishes. Loudly. It’s one of the most annoying things I could imagine hearing during an intense concentration challenge, but as a viewer, I was grinning the entire time. Watching most of the tribe drop out to the tune of Nicole’s cookbook recitation took me back to that iconic challenge in David vs. Goliath, where Christian told random nerdy stories. Only this time it wasn’t a big heroic moment as much as it was someone chipping away at their own social game.
Nicole doesn’t win though, and it comes down to Geoff and Steffi. Geoff needs it, but Steffi wants it so Geoff can’t have it. Steffi pulls off the victory, earning the right to wear the cool looking Cthulhu-esque necklace and exile someone to IOS for the night, removing them from Tribal Council. So will Steffi pick one of Geoff’s allies to weaken that side of the tribe? Or will she choose someone in her own alliance so that they might find an advantage? Nope, she picks herself. Was it because she had some 4-D chess scheme going on? Did she plan on strategically taking herself out of the dynamics to find an advantage herself? Was this a hero move to save everyone from a miserable night on IOS? Nope, she just wants to think and take a nap. I’m not kidding; that’s her reasoning. Steffi was tired of dealing with everyone, needed some alone time, and wanted to take a rest. She literally took herself out of the biggest vote of the season, a vote that cements alliances and makes a first impression on the jury so that she could get some shut-eye.
I can’t say it’s out of character for Steffi. She’s always been a person who plays her own way no matter how unorthodox her game might appear be. But man, it’s not a good move. She trusts her allies and figures nothing could go wrong, but having another person there to make sure the vote goes off without any craziness always helps. And this isn’t good for her overall game either. If I was a juror and Steffi was in the finals, I would have a hard time voting for someone who walked away from the super important merge vote to take a nap. It’s just not something I would have much respect for. That’s not to say someone on the cast wouldn’t consider it an honorable move and give Steffi their vote, but with a few superfans in this tribe, I can’t see her style appealing to everyone.
Also, I find it incredibly bizarre how Steffi went from happily leaving her fate up to chance on IOS, to returning to camp and annoying everyone by playing too hard strategically, and back to sitting on IOS not playing the game by choice. Are there two Steffi Brinks on this show? You can’t resign from the game one minute and then go mad with power the next and not give me whiplash as I wonder what the heck just happened. But Steffi is one to watch, not because she’s on the verge of becoming the greatest player Survivor has ever seen, but because she’s always keen on doing things her own way. That’s true unpredictability if I’ve ever seen it.
Just a few hours remain until Tribal Council, and plans are put into action. Nicole’s food monologue annoyed Meryl and Dante, but her name’s not on the chopping block, so they aim to target Geoffrey with the original Ta’alos, Jacques’ extra vote, and Laetitia. That’s only six votes though, so I think Dante’s math is a bit off there. Meryl’s campaigning puts a target on her back, and Rob decides she’s the most dangerous player in the long term, believing she’ll infiltrate the majority and take it down from the inside. To cover up the Spit-Shake Seven, a split vote plan is formed to keep all the votes on Meryl and Geoff while keeping Dante’s loyalty firmly in Jacques and Cobus’ hands.
It’s a great move. If Geoff goes, the Spit-Shakers get what they want, and Dante is happy. If Meryl goes, the Spit-Shakers still get what they want, and Dante still thinks he’s got allies because the way the votes will play out suggests his “group” stuck together and the Laumei Trio/Amigos formed the new majority. Then all they need to do is “flip” the Amigos back to take out Geoff or Mmaba next and boom, Dante feels like he’s in a position of power and the Spit-Shake Seven remain totally hidden. Then they have free reign over the rest of the season as long as they stick together.
But will the Spit-Shake Seven remain in control for much longer? The preview promises a big move from Mike as Geoff panics about his position in the game, so we could be in for a big shakeup. But if the Spit-Shakers remain loyal, there is nothing Geoff and his allies can do unless another idol enters the game, and you know how I feel about an excess number of idols. I’d put my chips on Geoff leaving, perhaps with Mmaba as his only real ally when the votes come in. Laetitia and Durao have connections to the Spit-Shakers and Misfits, respectively. Mike is playing both sides but has better long-term prospects with the bigger group, meaning they’d need to pull directly from the Amigos or the old Ta’alo members.
Dante would rather snuff his own torch (or just jump in the fire pit) than work with Geoffrey. Nicole is back with the Amigos and shouldn’t risk betraying them again. Rob’s too focused on avenging Nathan to consider changing it up. Seipei has no reason to flip whatsoever. Steffi’s fine where she is. Jacques finally found a place within the Spit-Shake Seven and the Misfits. And Cobus literally started the alliance controlling the game at the moment. It’s looking grim for Geoffrey, and not even another jar of sweets could save him. But Geoff’s a crafty guy; I trust him to imagine a clever way out of the jaws of death, even if he doesn’t succeed. He’s not going down without a serious fight, and if it’s his last stand, I’m expecting fireworks.
And with that, the season has reached its midpoint – nine episodes down, another nine to go. It’s a rare treat to witness a game vote by vote in clear detail with how rushed and packed together US Survivor tends to be at times, so I’m totally invested in this season. Not every week will bring a legendary big move or intense blindside. Some weeks will be predictable or disappointing and might shake your faith in Survivor SA to provide a quality post-merge. But this is Survivor SA. The cast is here to play, the editors know how to tell a compelling story, and there’s still half a season left to go. The real game is just beginning, and it’s going to be a fun ride regardless of the outcome. Enjoy it while you can, because good Survivor is a real treat.