The merge is always a point of excitement in the Survivor season. It’s a milestone for the players, allowing them to loosen some of the shackles that restrict bold gameplay for fear of going home early. It’s thrilling for the viewer, as all of the pre-merge build-up crashes together onto one – generally chaotic – beach. It marks a distinct turning point, too, as the rules of the game shift significantly to put the onus on the castaways to play for themselves and not the other folk wearing the same coloured buffs.
With the Edge of Extinction finally offering its six outcasts their opportunity to get back into the game and the first raising of the sail, the merge episode felt like even more of a touchstone moment for the season. Although some of those castaways keep surviving, it’s a bookend to the first arc of season 38, and with crazy and questionable choices made by the newly minted Vata tribe, it’s a whole new beginning.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
Without even wasting a precious minute for a Previously On…, the episode launched straight into the merge and the surprise reveal of the six pre-merge cast-offs marching back in for what they believed to be their last shot at getting back in the game. I’m not sure if it was the instantly iconic moment Jeff predicted, but that doesn’t dull the luster of the sequence. The freshly merged tribe was a mix of surprise, excitement and dread (the latter predominantly the four Lesu, already outnumbered, who had the most to fear given Extinction had been almost exclusive to the ghosts of their past), and the Extinction outcasts had a determination in their step.
Despite exclamations of wanting revenge in the past, the Extinction 6 had none of the vindictive “Die Jerks” energy of the Outcasts from Pearl Islands, the closest analogue to this moment in Survivor’s long history. Whereas the Outcasts had to work together to beat their old tribes to get the chance to vote someone back in, Extinction guaranteed a merge buff to one player – the winner of an individual challenge. While it might have excised the drama of vengeance, there was poetry to it. Other people took the game away from you by voting you out, and now it’s only up to you to right it.
The challenge was nothing iconic in and of itself. We’ve seen these obstacles before, though including the Jail Break was certainly a nice nod to the unarguably iconic Pearl Islands Outcasts, and the snake “maze” is one of my favourite tests of skill from recent seasons. Nevertheless, it was better than a prolonged endurance challenge, with the race to the finish and a final stage that could send a player from the lead to the back of the pack in an instant adding a mounting tension that seemed palpable even to the merge tribe peanut gallery watching from the sidelines.
It was a hard-fought and close challenge. Aubry’s experience showed as she breezed through the Jail Break, but even the knot disadvantage looming over Chris didn’t stop him from nearly making good on his reputation as the goliath wonderboy. The big surprise was Wendy, who’s shown herself to be a beast in the water challenges but who demonstrated astounding determination here, fighting through an onslaught of her physical Tourette’s tics to put her within inches of victory – but ultimately a heartbreaking loss. The last red buff instead went to Rick, who eagerly joined his new tribe a new man forged in the fire of Extinction, but apologetic to the five companions he beat out and now left behind.
As the merged tribe headed off to their celebratory feast, Jeff took a moment to reflect on Extinction with the remaining five. Reem, Keith, Chris, Aubry and Wendy were brutally honest as they tearfully spoke of how much this game meant to them, how hard they’d pushed themselves to rise from the ashes, and even reflecting on how they’d been able to prop each other up through the challenge of survival on Extinction. In the moment, they believed that this would be where their journey would end – the precedent set by the Outcasts and later on Redemption Island. You lose the challenge, and your story ends here. But not so this season, as Jeff offered each of the five the opportunity to keep fighting another day. In the rush of the moment, with the adrenaline pumping, the cry was a resounding yes.
But when you come down off the high, it’s a different story. Standing across from the merged tribe, Jeff, and a colourful challenge set, you feel close to the game. Back on Extinction, grey, lonely and isolated, the game you long for is remote and a near impossibility, and for Keith and Wendy, it was time to close this chapter. While I wish we’d had time in this overstuffed episode to hear a little more about their decision to raise the sail, it’s not something I can fault them for. Both lived the Survivor experience, so why prolong the suffering for little gain.
Keith seemed the most tempted to raise the sail in previous episodes, but he held on, looking towards this re-entry challenge as his horizon. He wasn’t expecting anything beyond that, and given challenges aren’t his forte, why struggle for who knows how many days only to lose again. Instead, go out now while you can feel proud of your accomplishments. I think Wendy fell into the same category, despite only spending one night on Extinction. She was voted out of the game with a smile on her face and made a strong showing at the challenge that she could be proud of – she needed no validation by struggling on. And who’s to say how long that struggle would last for one more chance at a challenge that might not even be in their wheelhouse.
While it’s easy to view Keith & Wendy (and any sail-raisers to come) as quitters, I think that does a disservice to them. They played the game, fought hard and lost when they were voted out, but fought their way forward a little longer until it was time to let go and accept it. As Chris said, Extinction can be a little like therapy, and Keith and Wendy accepted their fate in this season of Survivor, walking out with their heads high.
The decision by Reem, Chris, and Aubry to stay on, though, is certainly applaudable. Aubry’s passion for Survivor is something to behold, but Chris and Reem too have that burning fire to live out their dream. Perhaps it’s that they don’t feel like their story is over yet and there is unfinished business to resolve. It’ll be a slim chance of victory – even before Joey Amazing showed up – but their tenacity and hunger also earned them a seat on the Jury. At least, temporarily.
While I was glad to see Survivor correct its Redemption Island mistake and make sure that everybody still in the game is present at every Tribal, I’m not sure how I feel about these pre-merge players having a say at the Final Tribal Council. Sure, they’ll have earned their way deep through sheer survival, but can Reem, voted out on Day 3, really adjudicate the best game from an all-Kama Final Three of people she’s never met? It’s not unprecedented – Cook Islands and other seasons in the middle ages flirted with pre-merge Jurors – and it’s not that far removed from players voted out in 13th place at the merge in recent seasons, but there’s still something that feels off about it.
Also, I find it curious that Keith & Wendy, despite choosing to return to Extinction after the challenge, lost out on a Jury seat by two days of just waiting on an Island. It does make me wonder if the Jury seats held by Reem, Chris and Aubry (and perhaps even the Extinction residents to come) are conditional ones, dependent on either returning to the game or at least lasting until the final re-entry challenge. Perhaps if they were to raise the sail, they’re also forfeiting their seat on the Jury. But that is enough talk about those on the fringes of the game – let’s get right back into the main event.
Coming into the merge, I had no idea how it was going to play out. The Kama majority loomed large, but with two Idols in Lesu hands and the unknown factor of the Extinction returnee, there was enough uncertainty to have me questioning how this would unfold. Yet nothing could prepare me for how fractured this Vata tribe would be. From the couch, I had assumed that Rick coming back into the game would be the best possible thing for Lesu. His boot episode was a somber lamentation reiterating how reluctantly they were to turn on each other, and surely now he would be a staunch ally compared to a scorned Reem, Keith, or Chris, or a wildcard like Aubry or Wendy. But even in the episode where his torch was first snuffed, the Lesu camaraderie seemed to come out of nowhere after the growing divide between David & Rick and Kelley & her posse, and perhaps now, with Rick back in the game, it’s clear that was largely theatre. The Dad Bod had barely returned before Kelley, Lauren and by extension, Wardog were kicking him straight back to the curb.
It was a dumbfounding move. While I can see that they would have been concerned by the resurrection of David’s number one ally, there were bigger problems on the horizon and now was not the time to cannibalise themselves. They were vastly outnumbered – 5 to 8 – but all it would take would be two people to flip to work with them to make a new majority. Kelley seemed to entertain this notion, speaking to Joe who voiced his concern of being on the outside of the Kama core alliance, and name-checking Aurora as someone he could trust. Those two votes seemed ripe for the picking, and perhaps it was ultimately that Joe & Aurora decided not to flip, thereby sealing the dissolution of Lesu.
But it seemed that Kelley’s conversation with Joe, summoning the spectre of their shared time on Cambodia, was more of an attempt to build in-roads in the weeks ahead and shore up an ally ostensibly in the majority. After all, the apocryphal canon is that Joe was the one who slipped up and gave Kelley the information she needed for her historic Idol play against Andrew Savage. Neither Kelley nor Joe seemed particularly interested in shaking up the game at this moment – right now they were fixated on a simple and easy vote.
For Lauren and Kelley, this was sending Rick straight back to Extinction. It’s not a terrible idea on paper – he’s already an outsider, and given Kelley, Lauren & Wardog were the votes to send him out in the first place, they had to have been concerned about burned bridges. Again, it’s not without precedent – Matt Elrod suffered this exact fate at the hands of his original tribe in Redemption Island. The distinction there is that Boston Rob and Ometepe still had the majority even without Matt – a luxury not afforded to Lesu. Kelley & Lauren pitched their plan to go for the perceived easy vote to the women of Kama, and it was taken on board, but by also pitching it as a split vote between David & Rick, they implicitly revealed a divide in the minority alliance.
A crack in the majority is an opportunity for the underdogs, but so too is a fracture in the minority alliance. If the big guns are confident that the minority won’t be able to work together to mount an uprising, it gives the majority even more power. They are effectively unopposed. With Kelley’s experience, I’m surprised she walked into this trap, but Kama played it perfectly here.
Julie has been a continued presence through the first half of the season, and last week we saw her begin to put on her game face. At the merge, it came out in full force. Without even a Tribal under her belt, she began working for her individual advantage. She immediately reached out to Rick, offering him a life raft if he wanted to jump ship from the tribe that voted him out, and although it may partly have been borne from pity and not wanting to see Rick sent straight back to a hellish purgatory, building social connections with outsiders is a critical part of the game.
Thus, when Kelley and Lauren revealed their betrayal of Rick and David, Julie was armed with intel and funnelled the information to Rick and by extension David, further driving a wedge between the Lesus and drawing them into a conspiracy to work together. In a sense, Kelley & Lauren’s fears that Rick & David would flip became a self-started, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rick, naturally, gravitated towards whoever could make him feel secure. As the blinking neon target and a stranger in the social landscape of a group of people he’d never met, he needed assurance. Julie was able to provide that, to the point of being able to withhold the name of Kama’s target until the end which speaks to just how much Rick needed an ally. Thankfully, Rick knew he had at least one other man in his corner in his trusted ride-or-die David. This relationship became even more valuable when Rick found an Immunity Idol in his bag – albeit one with terms and conditions.
I’d wondered if Extinction would revisit the Outcasts’ automatic Immunity for the returning players at the merge Tribal, but that felt too overpowered. This Idol, on the other hand, was a happy medium. The Idol wasn’t an Idol yet (cue the Ghost Island maturation jokes), but rather two halves of a whole. One half had to be given to another player before the merge Tribal, and it was only if both players survived the vote that the Idol could be reforged. It’s a clever twist, giving the returnee from Extinction a bargaining chip to work their way back into the game – one could see a player offering the Idol to a player in power if they kept them around through the next vote, or even using it as a bluff at Tribal. However, it wasn’t a sure thing, and that keeps it interesting.
Rick, however, had the good fortune to have a trusted ally in David to collaborate with the two-part Idol – though it will be intriguing to see how the aftermath plays out next episode when David has the temptation to keep his half and deprive Rick of the Idol – for a time, or permanently. Don’t forget, the last time an Idol had two halves, Lauren Rimmer gave one half to Mike Zahalsky, and he threw it in the fire, shortly before Lauren herself got Idolled out of the game. Power is a fickle thing.
The first part of Julie’s scheme was in effect – she knew Lesu was divided, and she had the ear of both sides, but a potential number in Rick. Thus, she set her sights on a big fish: taking out Kelley Wentworth. It was certainly a palatable idea to David & Rick, who’d passed on their opportunity to take her out pre-merge, and it was an aggressive move by Julie, who had established herself as someone eager to play hard. Kelley was convinced of the easy vote against Rick, she would be blindsided if they could pull this off.
Julie’s Kama alliance seemed on board. Victoria was enthusiastic, also setting her sights on eliminating targets that were threatening to her game (a point she tried to articulate at Tribal, but that set off alarms from Joe – and likely others). The others, too, seemed amenable. The hiccup came with Julie’s own triumph. She won Immunity – a fantastic feat, but one that obliterated her own schemes. Critically, and unfortunately for her, winning Immunity also meant keeping it out of Joe’s hands.
Ron has seemed to waiver through the pre-merge between wanting to target Joe at the first opportunity to wanting to hold onto him if he didn’t need to let him go, if simply for provision and expertise around camp. Yet with his first Tribal looming, Ron’s competitive edge pushed to the forefront. As Joe – surprisingly unflapped, and in hindsight, terribly blasé before his first vote of the season – sat in the shelter painting the tribe flag, Ron approached him to discuss the vote and Joe responded with vague statements, seemingly non-committal. For Ron, this was all the reason he needed to mount an attack. Joe was vulnerable and, with a superb track record in individual challenges, there was no guarantee when this opportunity would present itself again. So as half the tribe chased chickens through the underbrush, Ron turned the plan around. Kelley later. Joe now.
The Kama 6 seemed conflicted between the two – and for good reason. There were advantages to both strategies. Both were dangerous returning players in their own right, and both seemed confident in the plans they believed were in place. Joe almost certainly did not have an Idol, making him a sitting duck, but he was also going along with the Kama Strong mantra. Kelley might not have the bite, being from the minority alliance, but she could still have the sting of an Idol or another sneaky plan. But despite the uncertainty within the alliance, their greatest asset was that their opponents were divided. Six into 13 does not make a majority – except for this vote. The Kama 6 had total control.
And yet, they played it poorly. Even excusing Ron’s awful Tribal performance where he praised his Kama tribe to the heavens and openly bragged about the security of a majority alliance, the execution of the vote seemed problematic. Voting out Joe has its flaws – namely, sending him to Extinction where he can conserve his energy for his chance to re-enter while buttering up a potential Jury who he hasn’t wronged, instead of wearing him out through Immunity challenges and forcing him to be complicit in voting out the Jury – but it’s not an inherently bad idea. Wonderboy Chris lost the Extinction challenge, and Joe lost the Immunity that very day. It’s no certainty he’ll come back in, and the opportunity was there, so they took it.
However, even if Extinction wasn’t a factor, I don’t think the Kama 6 played it well, as their move completely ostracised the other half of the tribe. Aurora was completely discarded by her old tribemates. Kelley, Lauren and Wardog were left at the altar. Rick and David, happy to flip and vote out Kelley, were left out in the cold. They can’t even explain to Rick & David that they were the contingency split vote – the other Lesu votes tallied three on David, compared to their two against Wentworth. This fractured minority may have all voted for each other, deepening the divide between them, but none of them have any reason to trust the Kama 6 moving forward. If Lesu can put down their weapons and draw in Aurora, that’s 6. That’s a rock draw. That’s (unknown to Kama) three Idols in the opposition. There is a clear line in the sand, and those on the outs would be wise to exploit it, and if they do, then it’s those preaching Kama Strong that will be in the firing line.
And what of Joey Amazing? I was optimistic last week to see Joe utilise calculated strategy to woo his fellow Kama to his side, and particularly his pitch to Julia, labelling her a threat. But, not wholly unlike Aubry in the pre-merge, he grew complacent in a comfortable majority. However, where Aubry thought she had a lifeline through Victoria, Joe knew he and Aurora were on the bottom and yet he appeared to make little effort to turn that around. Maybe it was just that he saw Lesu imploding and wanted to keep his distance. Perhaps he wanted to keep his head down and hope for better luck at the next Immunity. But whatever his reasoning, Joe chose the wrong time to take a break from playing the game.
The merge can often be an easy, consensus vote – but if there is even a little tingler, you have to make sure that the no-brainer vote isn’t going to be you. Luckily for Joe, he lands in the Ozzy spot at Extinction – the odds-on favourite to return in a challenge, and a perfect opportunity to curry favour with the outcasts who now sit on the Jury.
So now another week to see how this all resolves. This week’s episode felt far too short for the amount of content – the Extinction challenge, the first resignation by sail, a complicated Idol advantage, an Immunity challenge, and a convoluted 6-3-2-2 Tribal Council. Nevertheless, it feels as though this season has begun anew as Kama finally faces the music of Tribal and the minority is anything but an alliance. This is where the game actually begins.