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.
Season: Australian Outback
Episode: “The Merge” (Episode 7)
Original Air Date: March 8, 2001
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Survivor‘s early seasons serve as the strategic building blocks for all of the crazy blindsides and #BigMoves to come in later years. And one of the best examples of that strategic foundation building is here in the merge episode of Survivor: The Australian Outback.
Armed with the knowledge of how the merge went down in the first season, this second group of castaways knows the name of the game is just to have the numerical advantage. With the Kucha and Ogakor tribes merging at five members apiece, everybody is posturing for position. It’s an especially tricky vote with the tiebreaker rule in play, sending the person with the most past votes out of the game should such a scenario arise.
This episode reminds us how loyal people were to their original tribal alliances in the old school seasons. Kucha was already a close-knit tribe before Michael Skupin’s medical evacuation but losing a tribemate under such devastating circumstances created an unbreakable bond. Ogakor, while a lot more dysfunctional in comparison, was just as steadfast in their allegiance to the tribe. It truly is a battle between two families; even choosing which camp to live at becomes a fight for power and dominance.
Despite the war for tribal control, there is no bad blood between the individuals. Colby Donaldson and Keith Famie are welcomed into the Kucha camp with open arms, even if Kucha’s men were expecting female company. Likewise, at Ogakor, Alicia Calaway and Elisabeth Filarski are treated to hugs and Jerri Manthey’s “famous” tortillas. There is a real human element that is often lacking in modern Survivor. Kucha is just as concerned about Ogakor’s food situation as Ogakor is about Skupin’s well-being. It’s proof that genuine human spirit and kindness exist even in this cutthroat, complex game.
What’s interesting about this episode, though, is how both tribes approach the vote. There is no real attempt to flip someone over; that’s how committed people are to their groups. Instead, it all revolves around the tie-break rule, a guessing game to determine who has prior votes. Initially, it looks like Kucha has the upper hand. The Ogakors have Jerri and Keith, two of the most difficult people to live with and most likely to have received past votes. This makes them easy targets for the Kuchas to put their votes on.
However, the Ogakor tribe is one step ahead, as they correctly anticipate that Kucha would think this way. Jerri and Keith are indeed the only Ogakor members with prior votes cast against them, and so, Colby comes up with a cunning plan. In what is arguably Colby’s savviest move of the season, he hustles to attract all the votes his way by being intentionally cocky and strutting around camp like a brash Texan cowboy who owns the place.
Colby’s plan not only works but seeing it play out leads to some humorous moments, like watching Jerri desperately trying not to bad-mouth Keith in front of Alicia and Elisabeth. It’s especially funny when Jerri realizes that Keith left camp with the “damn matches,” leaving them no way to start a fire. But Jerri plays her part, not wanting to give away the Ogakor tribe dynamics to the enemy.
This battle for tribe dominance becomes so intense that it leads to one of Survivor’s most iconic challenges of all-time: “Perch.” This is the one where each tribe member has to stand atop a wooden platform in the water until only one remains standing. The challenge lasts for an incredible 10 hours and 17 minutes, with Tina Wesson eventually giving up Immunity to Keith, who feels like he’s much more in danger of going home.
Side-note: This is the same challenge that features Jeff Varner’s infamous jump for peanut butter that became the driving force for his second chance in Survivor: Cambodia. And it also features Amber Brkich’s chocolate finger-licking montage set to bad 80s porno music (later reprised for Woo Hwang at the Survivor Auction in Survivor: Cagayan).
Given the epic length of the Immunity challenge, there is no time for any last-minute scrambling back at camp, as the newly-coined Barramundi tribe is ushered straight to Tribal Council. There is nothing more to be said or done at this point. The plans are made, and the battle has been fought. All that is left to find out is who the Ogakors are voting for, and, on that front, they come prepared.
Unbeknownst to the Kuchas, the Ogakors have some secret intel. At a previous challenge, Tina, sweet on the surface and sneaky on the inside, allegedly poked and prodded legendary loudmouth Kimmi Kappenberg into revealing that Varner had a vote cast against him (though this wasn’t shown on TV). This gives the Ogakor tribe a huge advantage over their opponents.
Tribal Council is tense as both alliances talk up their loyalty and commitment to one another. But in the end, the Ogakor plan works perfectly. The Kuchas fall for the trick, putting their five votes on Colby, while the Ogakor group votes for Varner. Colby didn’t have any past votes against him, and Varner had two. This means that Varner is sent packing, giving Ogakor the numerical advantage and ultimately propelling Colby and Tina to the Final 2.
The tie-vote rule, which was scrapped after season 3, gives this episode a unique feeling. It might not have the chaotic energy and constant flip-flopping of a modern merge episode, but that’s what makes it so fascinating. The players are operating within the rules of old school Survivor, finding original ways to overcome the odds and outwit their opponents. That the episode still finds time for comedy, human moments, and an epic challenge makes it an all-time classic.
Check back tomorrow when we reveal which episode placed at number 46. You can check out the previous entries here.