Well, it’s that time of year again. The tribal phase is no more, Probst is salivating over seeing his new merge twist in action, and someone’s about to be horrifically robbed as the fans cry out in disgust. At least, that’s what I expected to see. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. We actually got a great merge episode with minimal twist-based robbery. Production tweaked their bizarre Hourglass twist into palatable (if unnecessary) flavor text that didn’t intrude on the dynamics but actually set the stage for an epic implosion with fascinating personality drama.
But before we dig into that beef, let’s talk tribe dynamics. Meeting at Baka beach for the merge, the final thirteen come bearing advantages, disadvantages, and fractures galore. Continuing his trend of manifesting quirky editing jokes after he manifested his opening credits shot, Owen breaks down the trinkets we’ll be dealing with in the coming weeks… in bottom-third chyron form!
Jeanine and Gabler have idols. Noelle has a Vote Steal. Jesse and Jeanine can’t vote at the next Tribal. And beyond Owen’s immediate knowledge, the editors fill in the gaps to remind us of Cody’s and Karla’s idols. Yeah, it’s a lot to keep track of. And thanks to Noelle, Cody’s idol soon becomes public knowledge among Elie and Jeanine, and a massive target is pinned down as the first drop of blood hits the water.
Speaking of blood, though, the “Earn the Merge” challenge is back and literally bloodier than ever. But the cruel nature of the twist itself is totally de-fanged as Probst promises the players that if they win the challenge, their immunity won’t be stolen from them. It’s clear, it’s concise, and most importantly, it’s finally fair to the players. In addition, the person not chosen for a team won’t be exiled for two days. Instead, they’ll support one of the two teams and share its fate come Tribal.
All around, the twist is free of bugs, doesn’t screw anyone over, and can work without a two-part episode. A bit convoluted and unnecessary, for sure, given a standard merge vote is always ideal, in my opinion. But if they insist on including these fake merge twists, this is a safe and simple way to make it work.
In a nail-biting comeback, the team of Dwight, Gabler, Jeanine, Jesse, Karla, and Ryan win immunity and a merge feast, with Noelle joining them from the sit-out bench after a correct winner pick. That leaves Cassidy, Cody, Elie, James, Owen, and Sami on the chopping block with nowhere to hide and no second shot at immunity this time, and the hunt for targets is on.
Back at camp, Elie’s gut instinct is to continue the Baka-Vesi alliance and strike at Coco, using Cody’s name as a decoy while splitting between James and Cassidy. James will be the true target, as the chess master’s attempt to pull Cody aside for a quick chat as soon as they return to camp rubs Elie the wrong way. But Elie shouldn’t feel so secure with her scheme just yet. James asks her for a name, but she stumbles through the delivery before finally naming Cody, setting off alarm bells in James’ head. And to make matters worse, her own name is making the rounds as Gabler finally strikes at the merge feast.
Now, the merge feast dynamic is usually cordial for a reason. It’s the moment when you meet new people, try not to ruffle feathers, and get a sense of who’s worth working with or against. A bad first impression can ruin your game if you come on too strong, but Gabler won’t bide his time nor worry about first impressions. He just comes out and says it: Elie should go home next because she searched his bag on day three.
Everyone takes their turn dunking on Gabler’s poor timing, which is well deserved because this is a Gabon-tier emotional move from a Gabon-tier emotional player. But I can’t say Gabler’s not a go-getter. And with him immune from the vote, he’s also immune to immediate blowback, leaving Elie with some serious explaining to do.
Once both groups reunite, Elie puts her anti-Coco plan into action. Step one: tell the old Vesi members that Cassidy is throwing out Cody’s name. Step two: learn that Gabler blew up her game at the merge feast and wants her gone. Oops, scratch that last part because it’s damage control time. Scrambling to clean up Gabler’s mess and clear her name, Elie confronts her nemesis. Gabler rats out Sami and Owen for leaking the bag search plan while Elie tries to play defense and denies everything. But she only buries herself further by telling Gabler about Jeanine’s idol, a clear indication that he wasn’t in her inner circle like she claims.
Any chance Elie had of keeping Gabler at bay is destroyed, and neither player leaves the conversation looking competent as it devolves into a game of He Said, She Said. But Gabler is only one person on a tribe of 13, and a person without a shred of social capital at that. Clearly, he’ll be written off as a buffoon, and Elie can easily recover, right? Perhaps not.
Confronting Sami and Owen about their involvement with Gabler only burns more bridges for the psychologist. With the chaotic Gabler immune, Sami can only look at Elie as the biggest vulnerable threat to his own game. Meanwhile, Gabler confronts Jeanine to expose not only her role in bag-gate but her possession of the Baka idol. And in front of a dumbfounded Ryan, who gained valuable game info without having to say a word. Jeanine pulls Gabler and the other Bakas together and pushes to stay unified for one more round, but the Baka boys have their own agendas, and Jeanine’s words fall on deaf ears.
Elie still has other numbers to work with, though. She has the Cocos believing Cody is the target, all while the Vesis believe James and Cassidy are the targets. So that’s two whole tribes who might work with her on this vote. But just to add one more nail to her coffin, James exposes her anti-Cody plan to the Vesis, who then inform the Cocos about Elie’s not-so-sneaky double dealings against James and Cassidy. So as the dominoes fall one by one and Elie’s downfall is set in stone, everything comes down to Jeanine’s critical choice: does she play her idol for Elie or save it for herself?
Jeanine decides to keep her idol for a rainy day, believing the Baka Five will remain intact to take James out. But when the messy votes are finally read, it’s a slam dunk 7-2-1-1 vote against Elie. Gabler, Cassidy, James, Cody, Dwight, Ryan, and Sami take the shot, leaving Jeanine horrified and Gabler overjoyed as his rival is finally slayed. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Even though Gabler called his shot and hit his mark, this was a great move with horrific execution.
Getting Elie out took one anti-Gabler player out of the equation, but he created several more in the process who will have no qualms with cutting him loose. His current ceiling is third place, and while a whole season of “the Alli-Gabler” sounds like a dream come true, I wouldn’t be shocked if he follows Elie out the door as another easy consensus boot.
As for Elie, losing her this early in the game is a huge blow. While she wasn’t the triple threat Michele Fitzgerald homage I expected to see, she came to play hard even if her downfall seemed inevitable amid all the personality conflicts she created. If I had to pick the point at which her game began its downward spiral, I’d go all the way back to her first Tribal Council. She voted out Morriah, a loyal soldier for her failed girls’ alliance, instead of the man who would eventually be her undoing. She had Gabler feeling safe enough to not play his idol or his Shot in the Dark after talking him out of self-sacrifice, missing her one chance to knock him out before he’d grow into a serious thorn in her side.
But the mistakes just piled up one after another, from her marginal involvement with the infamous bag search, to treating the Baka men like incompetent children, to leaving Gabler totally out of the loop after forging an alliance with him. And finally, her shady double dealing, which unraveled as notes were compared. She relinquished power early on, didn’t realize she’d lost it, entered the merge way too confident and trusting for her own good, and was ultimately defeated by her even less competent nemesis in a perfect storm of chaos and bad luck.
And there we have it. The merge has officially arrived, several advantages are still in play, a solid majority alliance has yet to form among the wreckage of three incredibly fractured tribes, and Gabler’s somehow still in the game and causing trouble. The season was a slow burn in its infancy, but it’s finally burning bright as players flame out left and right, paving the way for what I hope is a compelling bloodbath of a post-merge.