Over the coming months, Inside Survivor is undertaking its biggest list ranking yet, as we count down the 100 best episodes of Survivor ever. As always with these kinds of lists, it’s entirely subjective, and we’re sure many fans will have different opinions. This is simply Inside Survivor’s ranking. Join us each weekday for a new entry.
Episode: “The Merger” (Episode 7)
Original Air Date: July 12, 2000
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Going back and watching Survivor: Borneo, it’s cool to see the show’s foundations being built episode by episode. Challenges and Tribal Councils set the structure, training the audience on what to expect from a typical Survivor episode. At the same time, confessionals allowed the castaways to talk candidly to the viewers at home, safe from prying eyes and ears.
All of those things are baked into the show’s conceit, but the biggest first that comes entirely from the players is the formation of “the alliance,” now the most fundamental building block for how the game is played. While the alliance subtly operates in the pre-merge, its true impact isn’t felt until this episode, with the arrival of another Survivor first: the merge.
Heading into this first merge, both the players and the audience don’t quite know what to expect. Combining the two tribes who had been living as adversaries on separate beaches for the last six episodes and forcing them to compete individually seemed like a natural and exciting turn for the show to take. Having two different teams with their own agendas and ideologies live together guaranteed unexpected drama for the viewers and new challenges for the players—a win-win for all involved.
The first matter of the merge to be addressed is the question of where the two tribes would live between the two tribe camps. Tagi? Or Pagong? Nowadays, this is a much simpler affair. However, in Borneo, the show goes all out in the deliberations, making each tribe pick an ambassador to attend a sand spit summit where they will have to negotiate which camp they would live at for the remainder of the game.
Sean Kenniff is chosen for Tagi, while Jenna Lewis represents Pagong. Both ambassadors visit the other tribe’s camp, and it quickly becomes apparent that the Tagi tribe has the most desirable of the two beaches. So while the camp decision is pretty much made up by the time the ambassadors reach their delegation spot on the sand spit, that doesn’t stop Sean and Jenna from having a good time, despite the producers’ best efforts to make the event as amorous as possible.
Outfitted with a canopy bed and a feast of lobster and libations, the duo enjoys a platonic evening on the sand spit. In the morning, Sean and Jenna make one last stop at the Pagong beach to collect the tribemates and all of their personal belongings before setting off for camp Tagi for the second half of the game.
All ten players finally hit the same beach together for the first time, exchanging pleasantries and engaging in get-to-know-you chat. Amongst all of these discussions, watching over everybody, is people watcher extraordinaire, Richard Hatch. Like the aquatic life he likes to hunt, Richard is a shark within the new Rattana tribe, silently watching his prey and waiting for the right moment to strike. Richard has the power to make a move, too, because of one simple reason: he is in the alliance.
In the days leading up to the merge, Richard spent his time rounding up candidates he wanted for his voting alliance. He eventually chose Rudy Boesch, Sue Hawk, and Kelly Wiglesworth. In forming this alliance, Richard was writing the rulebook on how to play Survivor. He knew that having more people on his side meant more votes at his disposal and thus would be the most efficient way to play the game, despite what the viewers at home might think, and boy, did they have some thoughts.
The concept of an “alliance” was one of the most controversial things to come out of the first season. Many people at home thought it was unfair or unethical for an alliance to form with the sole purpose of taking out all the unaligned players. It was a growing sentiment on the island too. Sean, and Gretchen Cordy of the Pagong tribe, especially, weren’t amenable to the idea of an alliance, a notion that perplexed Richard to no end.
“Sean’s ethically against any kind of alliance, and I hear Gretchen is similar on the other side and, um… I don’t get it,” Richard says in a confessional. “You know, I consider myself extraordinarily ethical and moral, and this has absolutely nothing to do with this. It sounds like sheer stupidity to me when somebody says, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to build an alliance, and I hope they wouldn’t do that either.’ Uh, you know, I giggle and think, ‘okay.'”
For all the blithering between certain players and the audience about the ethics of alliances, Richard’s alliance hadn’t truly struck yet. Up until this point in the game, the players had mostly voted people out based on strength and personality. Castaways were sent home because they didn’t contribute to the tribe or mesh well with the team. All of that was about to change with this vote.
When it comes to Tribal, all five ex-Pagong members vote for a different person, using the same criteria as before, exhibiting no cohesion whatsoever. Not wanting to piss anybody off, Sean enacts his now-infamous “alphabet strategy,” rendering his vote the most arbitrary. With votes being flung every which way, this leaves the door open for the Tagi 4 to put their four votes on Gretchen, believing her to be the biggest threat. When the votes are tallied, the historic 4-1-1-1-1-1-1 verdict is delivered and sends shockwaves throughout Tribal and across America.
This blindside is a genuine show of power from the alliance that cements the Tagi 4 as the season’s villains. The Pagongs were easily more well-liked by the viewers, and especially Gretchen, who was considered a fan-favorite and frontrunner to win. The fact the Tagi 4 could just systematically take her out and all the other Pagongs in the episodes to come signaled to the audience that this was not the show they had first thought it was.
The Borneo merge vote changed Survivor forever, illustrating that this wasn’t just some camping adventure on a tropical island. Instead, Survivor was a cutthroat game based on cunning strategy and social politics. The winner wouldn’t be the best person at surviving the elements but rather the player who could best survive the people.
Check back on Monday when we reveal which episode placed at number 17. You can check out the previous entries here.