by Ian Walker
Going back and watching Survivor: Borneo, it’s just cool to see all of the “firsts” that occur this season; looking back with fondness over all of the things that had never happened before that would become fixtures in the Survivor world.
Challenges and tribal councils set the structure for the episodes, training the audience on how a typical Survivor episode would flow. Confessionals allowed the contestants to talk candidly to the people at home, safe from the prying eyes and ears of their fellow competitors. But those were all things baked into the conceit of the show; the biggest first that came entirely from the players was the formation of the first alliance, the most fundamental building block of how the game of Survivor is played. The impact of that first alliance is felt in this episode with the arrival of the biggest change in the game: the first Survivor merge.
The matter of the merge to be addressed would be the question of where the two tribes would live between the two tribe camps. Nowadays a much simpler affair, the show went all out in the deliberations in this season, making each tribe pick an ambassador to attend a sand spit summit where they would negotiate which camp they would live at.
Sean Kenniff was chosen for Tagi, while Jenna Lewis represented Pagong. Both ambassadors visited the other tribe’s camp, and it quickly became apparent that the Tagi tribe had the most desirable of the two beaches. So while the camp decision was pretty much made up by the time the two reached their delegation spot on the sand spit, that didn’t stop Sean and Jenna from having a good time, despite the producers’ efforts to make the event as amorous as possible. Outfitted with a canopy bed and a feast of lobster and libations, the duo enjoyed a totes platonic evening on the sand spit. In the morning, Sean and Jenna made one last stop at Pagong beach to collect the tribemates and all of their personal belongings, before setting off for Camp Tagi for the second half of the game.
When all ten players finally touched down on the same beach together for the first time, it was a chance to see just what the dynamic of having one combined tribe would be like. Players from their respective tribes were exchanging pleasantries and engaging in getting-to-know-you conversations in various combinations.
Amongst all of these discussions, watching over everybody, was people watcher extraordinaire, Richard Hatch. Like the aquatic life he so liked to hunt, Richard was a shark amongst the new Rattana tribe, silently watching his prey and waiting for the right moment to make his move. Richard had the power to make a move too, because of one simple reason: he was in the alliance.
In the days leading up to the merge, Richard spent his time rounding up candidates he wanted for his voting alliance. He eventually chose Rudy Boesch, Sue Hawk and Kelly Wiglesworth, four out of the five Tagis to make the merge; only Sean was left out. In forming this alliance, Richard was writing the rulebook on how to play Survivor, influencing all of the seasons to come. He knew that having more people on his side meant having more votes at his disposal, and thus would be the most efficient way to play the game, despite what the viewers at home might think, and boy, did they have some thoughts.
The concept of an “alliance” was one of the most controversial things to come out of this first season. Many people at home thought it was unfair or unethical for an alliance to form with the sole purpose of taking out all of the unaligned players. It was a sentiment that was even growing on the island, Sean, and Gretchen Cordy of the Pagong tribe weren’t amenable to the idea of an alliance, a notion that perplexed Richard to no end.
“Sean’s ethically against any kind of alliance and I hear Gretchen is similar on the other side and, um… I don’t get it,” Richard says in a confessional. “You know, I consider myself extraordinarily ethical and moral and this has absolutely nothing to do with this. It sounds like sheer stupidity to me when somebody says ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to build an alliance, and I hope they wouldn’t do that either.’ Uh, you know, I giggle and think, ‘okay.’”
For all the blithering between certain players and the audience about the ethics of alliances, Richard’s alliance really hadn’t struck yet. Up until this point in the game, people had voted people out based on strength and personality. People were sent home because they didn’t contribute to the tribe or mesh well with team morale. All of that was about to change with this vote.
When it came to putting pen to parchment at tribal council, all five ex-Pagong members voted for a different person, using the same criteria as before, exhibiting no cohesion whatsoever between the group. Sean, not wanting to piss anybody off, enacted his now infamous alphabet strategy, rendering his vote the most arbitrary. With votes being flung every which way, this left the door open for Rich and his group to put their four votes on Gretchen, believing her to be the biggest threat amongst the Pagongs. When the votes were tallied, the historic 4-1-1-1-1-1-1 verdict was delivered and Gretchen was sent home.
This blindside was a genuine show of power from Rich’s alliance that sent shockwaves to the viewers at home and cemented the Tagis as the villains of the season. The Pagongs were easily more well-liked by the home audience and especially Gretchen, who was looked at as the strong and loving mom by the viewers at home. The fact that the Tagi alliance could just systematically take her out, and all of her former tribemates in the episodes to come, signaled to the audience that this was not the show that they had thought it was.
This was the vote that changed Survivor forever, illustrating that it wasn’t just some camping adventure on a tropical island, but a cutthroat game based on cunning strategy and social politics- and that the winner wouldn’t be the person who could best survive the elements, but rather the player who could best survive the people.
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