Well, that was certainly half of a Survivor episode.
Of all the things I’d hoped Survivor might take on board from its international cousins, convoluted twists that arbitrarily restrict player choices and non-elimination episodes were at the very bottom of the list. So to come into the quote-unquote “merge” episode to be hit with both— and the realisation that this ludicrously unnecessary twist will be dragged out over two episodes—was… well, I can’t say I’m thrilled.
But if there’s one silver lining, an episode eerily free of Tribal Council did afford us a little more time with the players. Not only did we finally dig into Erika’s story (still no luck for Heather), but we also got to re-establish the overarching Tribal dynamics ahead of the “merge” tossing them all together and beginning to develop new bonds and relationships. Having the space and time to explore the social game was a breath of fresh air, yet I’d still prefer we see that in the context of the pressure cooker of a merge vote.
THE TWIST… OH GOD, THE TWIST
I don’t know whose harebrained scheme this was but… oof. I imagine the idea was pitched in the context of being able to secure a double episode for the merge. And whether it was Survivor‘s production team getting too optimistic or CBS reneging on a planned schedule, the literal two-parter feel of the episode was an unwelcome challenge to the season’s breakneck pacing. Plain and simple, Survivor doesn’t work without Tribal Council—and while I appreciate the show’s willingness to experiment this season, not everything needs to be reinvented.
While I deplore Australian Survivor‘s non-elimination twists, at least they figured out that ending on a Tribal Council kept some degree of structure. Upon discovering that the episode would be a “two parter” in a needless return to Jeff’s fourth-wall-breaking, I was cautious about the episode feeling satisfying on its own. And sure enough, the ultimate cliffhanger just felt abrupt and deflating and frustrating in one.
But perhaps that deflation is exacerbated by my lack of enthusiasm for the twist itself. It’s like shuffling a deck of cards with fancy performative casino flair when you’ve been asked to shuffle and deal for a game of Go Fish with your little cousins—a lot of show for very little gain, and likely to arrive at the same outcome.
Rather than a traditional merge or swap, the 12 remaining players drew rocks to randomly divide them into two “teams” of five, with two players drawing a grey rock to be left out. These tribes—I mean, teams—would then compete in a pseudo-Immunity challenge purported to “earn” their place in the merge, winning their merge buff (in a beautiful shade of red, I must say), a merge feast and ostensible Immunity at the merge vote.
But wait, there’s more. The winning tribe would also choose one of the two grey rock players to join them as if they’d won the challenge alongside them while banishing the other to Exile Island for two nights. Meanwhile, the losing tribe would return to the merge beach with nothing but the promise of an individual Immunity challenge to protect them, essentially leaving only 5 people vulnerable at the “merge” vote. Where everyone will still vote… like a merge. So why not just call it that? The pedantic and nonsensical “earn the merge” nomenclature only gets more ridiculous, though.
Because, that’s right, for just two episodes payment if you call now, there’s still MORE! As it turns out, the person banished to Exile is given a secret “choice.” Presented with an hourglass, they have the opportunity to leave everything as it stands, meaning they’ll rejoin the “tribe,” have to compete for Immunity, and risk being voted out. Or they can choose to smash the hourglass (because turning it upside down isn’t dynamic enough, despite that being how hourglasses work), and, in doing so, strip the challenge winners of their Immunity and instead hand Immunity to the five who lost—and seemingly themselves.
This, honestly, makes the whole choice a charade, because few in their right mind would choose vulnerability over safety. And it also means the whole “earn the merge” is bogus because those red buffs don’t mean anything. The winners of the challenge are almost destined to become the losers. So… why not just have a normal merge? It’s a lot of hoops to jump through to accomplish very little.
In practice, the twist played out pretty predictably. The random “team” draws ended up with physically lopsided groupings heading into an intensely physical challenge. Unsurprisingly, this led to the physically dominant tribe (comprised predominantly of the winningest Luvu—Danny, Deshawn, & Sydney, joined by Yase’s Evvie and Ua’s Ricard) emerging victorious. With Naseer and Erika waiting on the grey bench, it was unsurprising that they elected to save Naseer and exile Erika, who Danny, Deshawn, and Sydney had been champing at the bit to eliminate.
On the upside, Erika’s exile finally allowed her to step into the spotlight, demonstrating both her humour and her gumption as she faced a gruelling two days of isolation. The time allowed her to reflect on her reasons for playing Survivor and her drive to play like a lion once she returned to the “merge” beach. But after so much time alone on Exile, on the back of sensing that she didn’t have the strongest ties with Luvu, it would be foolish to think that Erika will do anything other than smash the hourglass. Not only would it (presumably) grant her the Immunity that would have been given to Naseer, but it also allows her to curry favour with the losing team (Heather, Tiffany, Liana, Xander and Shan) and put a potential target on someone she’s been gunning for, like Sydney.
The show feels like it’s salivating at the schadenfreude of seeing the confident winning team who “earned the merge” suddenly vulnerable, but this feels, funnily enough, unearned. The winning team won the challenge. They had the binary choice of Naseer or Erika thrust upon them. They did what was asked of them, and odds are, they’re about to be punished for their success. This isn’t a case of over-confidence leading to a satisfying blindside. This is a rug-pull for the sake of a rug-pull, and much like the growing threat of Liana stealing an Idol out from under perennial underdog Xander or fan favourite Naseer, it feels like it is arbitrary in punishing players for not knowing about twists they had no way to predict.
I’ll fully support Erika should she choose to smash the hourglass. Luvu is a definite sinking ship for her, and she’ll fare far better in the merge by coming in having single-handedly saved 5 new potential allies. But even though the episode banked on the tension of the will-she-won’t-she of Erika’s decision to provide a meaningful climax in lieu of Tribal, it just didn’t land—and I don’t think there’s any world in which it would. A good cliffhanger leaves a viewer with uncertainty that has been cultivated in the lead-up to the final, unresolved moment in the story. But this twist simply charges in at the last minute, threatening to invalidate almost everything from the preceding 40 minutes, and presents Erika with a choice that seems perfunctory at best, as one option is so clearly more advantageous than the other.
Maybe next week will make the twist feel more complete in hindsight, but even still, I don’t love its needless complexity when players and fans alike just want to see the merge, and more notably, the merge vote. Restricting the number of players vulnerable at a Tribal Council so significantly is never as exciting as it might sound on paper because it limits player-driven gameplay and increases the likelihood of collateral damage. The most consistent positive about this season is its stellar cast—diverse characters who are willing to play the game they’ve been bursting at the seams to play. And to see what could be a climactic merge vote muddied by a twist that restricts their ability to actually play feels like such a misfire from the season’s production design.
THE ACTUAL GAME
So musical chairs aside, the actual “merge” dynamics of the season are fascinating. Each tribe enters the “merge” with a surprising amount of disunity that promises to combust once we get past the needless twist. Naseer might have been championing Luvu to hold to their numbers, but everyone on that tribe sees the cracks widening every minute. Any façade of Luvu loyalty was immediately tossed out the window with Danny openly campaigning to make the “merge” vote an easy Erika pile-on. Meanwhile, Yase has an ostensible battle-tested four, but between Liana’s distrust of Xander and his myriad of advantages, and Tiffany’s sceptical paranoia, they’re far from a sure bet.
Most surprisingly, Ricard and Shan enter the merge on their rockiest footing yet. They’ve spent the first 12 days whittling down their tribe and essentially choosing each other as their primary allies, and yet they have lost a significant degree of trust in each other due to the whole Extra Vote debacle. While both are in questionable stead when it comes to demonstrated trust, it’s fascinating that their wealth of experience at Tribal seems poised to damage their ability to work effectively together rather than shore up their skills. While Ricard ultimately relinquished the Extra Vote, the scars of that debacle are unlikely to fade quickly.
In fact, as soon as her team arrived at the “merge” beach, Shan was already looking for paths into a new alliance distinct from Ricard. She quickly gravitated towards Liana, but in her enthusiasm, she immediately asked about Liana’s advantage in front of Tiffany, who she’d yet to meet. The revelation caused some other issues for Liana, but the increasingly common unforced errors Shan is making are surprising. She came into the game with such a cool head and focused plan, and while she’s maintained her decisive position in the game, she keeps making these small moves that shake her allies’ trust in her. I fear the hum of a blindside could be coming her way. When even fresh ally Liana is cautious about her, it’s an ominous sign.
But Liana has troubles of her own, too, grappling with Tiffany’s intensity. Upon learning about the incredibly powerful advantage in Liana’s possession, Tiffany immediately started to doubt her trust in what is seemingly her number one ally. Liana, too, is showing signs of distrusting Tiffany. Still, at least she has the power of the Idol/Advantage steal, as well as decisive evidence of who is holding an Idol after the passcode reveals. But while robbing Xander or Naseer of their Idol could be crucial to her gaining rank in the tribe, she’s not solely reliant on it.
Liana and Shan quickly clicked with Danny and Deshawn over their shared Black experience. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard players express gratitude for the diversity of the cast, and it’s a testament to how important these initiatives are. For people of colour to be able to find common ground readily, in the same way countless white folk have been able to over the years, is encouraging—both for the impact on the game through empowering its players to be able to be more than just an archetype. This kind of transparent representation is crucial.
However, no race or gender or sexuality is a monolith, and I’m intrigued to see how the gameplay of this burgeoning alliance coalesces. Will they each try to keep their other allies in tow, or will they go all-in on this new foursome? They’ve also each approached the game with different kinds of confident and assertive gameplay, and the question will be whether their games will complement each others’ styles. It’s always the exciting part of a merge, seeing which new alliances form and which ones can go the distance.
And this particular alliance has its work cut out, as it does feel like no one is putting their eggs in any particular basket. Naturally, Yase and Ua have gravitated towards each other, but they question if Luvu cannibalising itself is actually too good to be true. Meanwhile, Danny & Deshawn are openly reaching out to Xander to guard the gender balance, fearing the unspoken dreaded Women’s Alliance, usually an unfounded panic, but this season bearing some validity if Evvie’s hopes for a non-cis male player to emerge victorious. The fascinating thing is that all of these potential allegiances overlap, and that’s not to mention the tentative alliance forged by Evvie & Deshawn, or the potential dislike Sydney harbours towards Tiffany.
These overlapping and intersecting alliances, these shifting and complex allegiances, are exactly why we didn’t need a convoluted twist for the merge. Sure, it might make for a talking point. Still, none of it is anywhere near as thrilling as seeing these competitive, multifaceted, and entertaining people build relationships, tear them down and go head-to-head in the game of Survivor.