If last week’s fake merge episode was a series of highs without any of the lows, the official merge episode is a series of lows with one or two high points thrown into the mix to remind you that Survivor is still about more than just advantages and wonky editing choices. This episode had some serious promise between an epic challenge win and a tragic blindside, but some major balls were dropped along the way, giving us a… not-horrible but more frustrating episode just when the season was picking up steam.
Returning to camp after Elie’s epic downfall, the newly minted and mint-colored Gaia Tribe has to explain what the hell just happened to Jeanine. Trying to do some late-night damage control, Jeanine sees her new position in terms of pros and cons. She might’ve lost her closest ally and has no secure majority to put her trust in, but she still has her idol and can play as a free agent without her association with Elie placing a target on her back. It’s a tricky position, but Jeanine navigates it well for the most part and won’t be in the hot seat for an easy consensus boot.
Likewise, Gabler’s got a plan to recover from his explosive power play. Adopting the nickname of The Alli-Gabler, he’s completed his death roll on Elie, devoured her dreams of winning the million, and will sink back beneath the surface until he hungers again. But after such a messy merge vote on his resume, he won’t shake the target on his back so easily. Owen’s still frustrated with him for selling out the Bakas. And I can only assume most of the Gaia tribe wouldn’t oppose cutting such a chaotic wildcard either, so it might not be long until gator season opens and the Alli-Gabler is bagged and tagged.
At a twisty immunity challenge, Jeff has a surprise for our top twelve. For the first two legs, the tribe will compete in pairs to earn their spots in the individual endurance portion. Nobody wants to ruffle feathers, so they decide on the pairs by drawing rocks. Noelle & Sami and Jeanine & Jesse fall short in the first round, making room for Jeff to hold an impromptu PSA about never giving up and being kind to one another in such a cutthroat game. Did we really need to see this segment in an episode already packed with a bloated immunity challenge? Not really, but the rest of the challenge makes up for the awkward digression. Karla & Cassidy and Ryan & James barely miss out on the final round, leaving Gabler, Owen, Cody, and Dwight to battle it out for the necklace.
And Gabler, pulling a Christian Hubicki and monologuing his train of thought for the entire challenge, is unstoppable. Minute by minute, he finds a new inspiration to keep himself holding on for a greater cause, eventually winning immunity with a record-setting time. While Gabler might be easy to write off as some camp jester with no game sense, there’s more to him under the surface than we might’ve expected. Whether he’s long for the game or not, he’s got a new mission for this season: doing his best for anyone with mental health issues, particularly military veterans like those he’s worked with in the operating room.
But with Gabler immune, the votes have to fall on someone else. The immediate plan defaults to what was intended to happen at the last vote: Baka and Vesi team up to target Coco, with their target being James. But as the majority plans his demise, James stumbles across some power that could change the tides. The only problem? He’s stuck with Sami, Owen, and Dwight when he finds the clue floating in the water well.
The group agrees to leave it be until after Tribal Council to avoid causing unnecessary chaos. But James won’t let a free advantage pass him by, quickly snatching the parchment from under their shelter when nobody’s looking. And, of course, because production refuses to let this advantage die already, it’s the Knowledge Is Power. Again.
Production is so desperate to see this thing be used correctly that I’m surprised Jeff himself hasn’t played it to get his big TV moment. But it seems the streak of players misplaying it might continue to their chagrin. James decides to spill the beans about the advantage to as many allies as possible to buy favor, including one of the idol holders in Cody. This should be a game-ending move for James, but fortunately for him, there are other plans afoot.
Noelle is the messenger for the James vote, spreading the word far and wide once news of his advantage gets back to the Baka-Vesi majority. Jesse isn’t having it, though, fearing that Noelle is calling the shots and amassing too much power too quickly. Dedicated to playing his own game instead of taking orders, he links up with his longtime ally Cody to plan a blindside. But Cody has his own target in mind: his old enemy Dwight. The two never got along on Vesi beach, and their impending battle of duos never came to be once Vesi went on a winning streak, so Cody’s hungry to make the first move and put the Vesi Civil War to rest.
Meanwhile, the majority alliance takes extra precautions as they go to war against James and his advantage, and a massive shell game is soon underway. Jeanine, Noelle, and Cody hand their advantages to Dwight, Owen, and Jesse, respectively. Why Jeanine and Noelle trust Dwight and Owen this much is beyond me, and the episode will never truly explain it alongside many other things, but nevertheless, the stage is set for an easy James boot. Until it isn’t.
Jesse eventually agrees to Cody’s idea, and the two join the Cocos (and Sami for some unexplained reason) to blindside Dwight with Jeanine’s idol in his pocket. The majority alliance fails to last even one vote as yet another member of their Baka-Vesi brigade is cannibalized, leaving the Coco outsiders intact for another round.
But what should have been a shocking plot twist turned into a head scratcher. It’s not that the process behind the vote wasn’t made clear. Cody and Dwight have never seen eye to eye, Jesse had a falling out with Dwight in the pre-merge, Cody and Jesse held all the power as swing votes, and Cody ultimately got his way to send Dwight packing. But I can’t agree with this choice whatsoever, at least from Cody’s perspective.
If he knows James has the ability to steal an idol in a season where idols are likely public info, there should be no question about it: James should go home before he can pull the trigger. Cutting Dwight was a hasty move made for the sake of making one, but then again, Cody has vowed to play with a “LIVIN” style: hard and fast with no regrets. Questionable moves or not, he’s trusting his gut, and it’s worked for him so far. But I can only wonder how long the payoff will continue.
As for poor Dwight, whether his game wasn’t gripping enough to make the episodes or he just struggled to find a place in the overarching story, he entered the merge as the least relevant player and exited as such too. Despite being a fun standout back in the premiere, he just never found his footing in the narrative or the game itself, mostly due to his falling out with Jesse and Cody, leaving him without any solid connections. And he won’t even be on the jury either, despite seeing two rounds of the merge. But at least he’ll take Jeanine’s idol to Ponderosa as a souvenir.
So, where does this strange episode leave the top eleven? Well, Jeanine’s hopes went from low to lower as she lost another ally and an idol in one blow. The Coco four have survived two close shaves by the grace of an unstable majority alliance, and James survived with his KIP against all odds. The apparent majority alliance is in free fall as the previews tease a new solid seven and the subsequent uprising against them. And somehow, Gabler might be turning his game around after a disastrous pre-merge.
It was an awkward hiccup of a week, but color me excited if cautious for what’s to come.