When Ulong shows up at their Tribal Council in Ep5 — the one where they have to watch Koror eating beef stew in front of them — they arriving having brought all their important camp supplies with them, in the vain hope they might be merging afterward. They weren't.
While a merge at 12 is perfectly standard in modern Survivor, it was also only Day 12. Since the game was not even one-third over, it was obviously a no-go there. Given that Koror would have an 8-4 numbers advantage over Ulong after Tribal, however, it was reasonable to expect there might be a swap. There wasn't.
It was certainly not unheard of to swap in this era. Since the first swap in Africa (season three!), more than half the following seasons had featured swaps. Perhaps the most similar situation came in Marquesas, where the hapless Maraamus had the lost the first three immunities, and were promptly swapped in Episode 4 (in part, perhaps to punish them for voting out Hunter Ellis, that season's Tom Westman version 0.5-beta). Especially in later seasons, the main benefit of a swap is to even out the tribe numbers, because it's ridiculous to have challenges where more than half of a tribe is forced to sit out. So why not here?
One reason may have been simply to amuse production. Let it ride, see what happens. They did call the premiere "This Has Never Happened Before!" after all. There was also a whiff of the familiar air of Survivor production sadism throughout the season, what with forcing Koror to spend three days searching and diving for their sunken flint box, rather than just giving them a new one after their next challenge win. This was season 10, and Jeff Probst was growing dissatisfied as host and pondering leaving, so spicing things up by arbitrarily punishing the contestants feels like about what you'd expect from this show.
The other, more obvious, reason comes from comparison with Redemption Island, which also didn't have a swap. There, one of production's two golden boys (Russell Hantz) had already gone out early, but the other one (Boston Rob) found himself in charge of the majority alliance in a tribe that was starting to look like it might have a chance to hit the merge with superior numbers. A fan/production favorite in a favorable position? A chance at one of their all-time favorite narrators flexing his way to the finale? A swap would be a huge gamble, especially when the numbers are relatively even,. That would risk upsetting all that. They can't let that happen, they won't let that happen, and they can't let that happen.
It's sort of the same thing here, although the numbers weren't close to even. Production would be over the moon to have a calm, athletic, masculine hero like Tom Westman win this season, especially after a string of winners that the (almost exclusively White and male) producers/editors had trouble selling to the conservative Midwest families CBS saw as its core audience: A sketchy car salesman/soft-porn actor (Thailand), a really young woman happy to pose for Playboy (The Amazon), a smart-mouthed Latina woman (Pearl Islands), an under-the-radar woman (All-Stars), and another vaguely sketchy dude (Vanuatu). So here, when season 10 presents the prospect of a feel-good, Captain America-type hero win? That would be absolutely priceless for the franchise. And all they had to do to make that happen was just take a step back and do nothing.
So when Coby and Caryn are grumbling that Tom's alliance has all the power, and Gregg and Coby start plotting to overthrow that majority and deep-six Tom at Final Seven? Maybe it's time to rethink endangering Tom's grasp on power with an Ep5/Ep6 swap. And when every remaining Ulong is wistfully hoping for a merge come Episodes 5 or 6? Well, you just pat them on the head and send them on their way. The Ulong men hate Tom! He's single-handedly beaten them in a couple of challenges! If more than one or two of them hook up with Coby, there goes your Guaranteed Hero Win! So long, dental plan! Who's going to watch this show any more if the humble, dashing firefighter who has been nobly biting his tongue, refraining from putting that old invisible grouch Willard in his place, gets cut down at the first post-merge vote?
The obvious time for production to act here was Episode 6. Koror was up 8-4 over Ulong. As it was with no swap, half the Koror tribe had to sit out of each challenge. It was farcical. And let's be honest, Koror was so confident and had so little to lose (with a free boot beckoning in the already-ready-to-quit Janu), they were basically daring Ulong to beat them here. After receiving a reward challenge treemail that read "No strength required," Koror put in their most physical team (Gregg, Tom, Coby), knowing full well those three would all have to sit out the immunity challenge, while Katie and Janu would have to compete. Miraculously, the zero-stakes gamble paid off, and Ulong still lost immunity.
So what would the worst case for production be if there had been a swap in Episode 6? At the extreme: all four Ulongs end up on one tribe, giving them a 4-2 majority. If they're worried about Tom being in that 2, remember that Tom and Stephenie had a Day 1 alliance, and Stephenie would happily jump to the other side to be free of those Ulong losers. That's the worst case! Tom's still safe! (Maybe slightly less likely if it's Tom and Coby, or Tom and Caryn ... maybe.) But it's far more likely the Ulong are tied 3-3 in one tribe, and down 5-1 in the other, or even at a 4-2 disadvantage on both new tribes. If the goal is punishing Ulong for their incompetence/bad luck, a swap doesn't interfere with that.
The other huge decision here, obviously, is forgoing a merge. The standard merge date in the single-digit season-number era was Day 20. The only acceptable variation thus far was a later merge, not an earlier one (Thailand and All-Stars both merged on Day 26). But this was also the "This Has Never Happened Before!" season. If only some Ulong had pulled the Samoa Russell Hantz move of proclaiming themself the best player of all time, and threatened production that they'd probably be losing out on that if they don't have a merge soon. (To be fair, we can't rule out that Redneck James tried this.)
Even a merge on Day 16 (or 17, when the RC takes place), with just three Ulongs left vs. eight Korors, wouldn't have been *that* early. Ulong would still have been hopelessly outnumbered. There's a risk they could cobble together an anti-Tom coalition with Coby and Caryn's help, sure. But it's also likely that Koror holds strong for at least a vote or two, until that threat was impossible, what with Coby and Gregg planning to make a move at final seven. (And again, Tom had potential protection in Stephenie.)
Rather than the bold experiment it was presented as, Palau's no-swap, no-merge format looks a lot more like a desperate attempt to ensure the outcome production obviously wanted.
The sacrifice made at the altar of Tom Westman: Bobby Jon
Big deal, you say. They played it safe? Cool story, bro. Even if true, what did Survivor really lose in not allowing a swap or a merge? Well, let's think.
In the short term, James had already outlasted his usefulness to the tribe by at least a couple of episodes, no big loss there. His redneck shtick had already worn thin, veering further and further into misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia (and something that looks an awful lot like racism dressed up as being aggressively pro-"team"). The editors had shown zero interest in telling Ibrehem's story until after he was almost booted, so while it's clear there was a lot more to explore there, it's unlikely more time in the game would have translated into more screentime for Ibrehem.
In contrast, since they brought them back the very next season, at least someone felt the show might have unfairly cut short Stephenie's and Bobby Jon's chances to play.
Of the two, it's hard to feel too bad for Stephenie. If anyone's responsible for Ulong's collapse, she deserves a good portion of the blame. Sure, she performed well in challenges, but she targeted Jolanda immediately, someone who would have been a huge challenge asset for Ulong. Bobby Jon, in contrast, tried to save her. For her part, Stephenie repeatedly saved James, who was generally useless. Given the choice of James, Bobby Jon, or Angie in Episode 5, her order of preference was Bobby Jon (!), then Angie. She never considered voting for James, even after complaining about his condescending manner while he directed the bathroom project. Given a choice between James and Ibrehem the next episode, she again chose to keep James (at least until the revote).
As Ulong dwindled to extinction, Stephenie also had a potential post-merge ace in the hole, in her Day 1 alliance with Tom. Then she came back the next season to play all 39 days of Guatemala. Then she came back again for Heroes vs. Villains. Each time reminding us that her primary purpose in Survivor is complaining about how everyone *else* on her tribe sucks when they lose a challenge. She has more than had her shot.
The real victim here was Bobby Jon. The show was hoping for a proto-Ozzy, and he wasn't quite that, but at least Bobby Jon outperformed the initial impressions his accent might have created. He had a steadfast alliance with Ibrehem from the start. He wanted to keep Jolanda around early on (but was apparently too easily convinced by a fake plan). Bobby Jon had precious little grasp of what was needed to control the social/strategic game beyond winning challenges, but he at least looked past the surface and considered people's intrinsic value, whether as a worker in camp or a competitor in challenges. He praised Jolanda's athletic prowess and effort, and Angie's freshly discovered competitive heart, even as his tribemates made questionable decisions based on other more murky criteria. He was Ulong's Ted Lasso. He was a good dude. (At the time, he was also called Bobby Jesus. He died for your sins.)
Was he a good strategic player? Oh, heavens no. His approach to the game was to tell Stephenie his plans, then go about his business catching fish and whatnot until time for Tribal, when he would do exactly what he'd said, while the rest of the tribe usually did something else. (Maybe he was also a bit of a proto-Keith Nale.)
Bobby Jon is the type of player who will always be targeted shortly after the merge if he reaches it down in numbers, as happened the next season in Guatemala. But this first time around, production's choices deprived him even of that. Despite allowing Janu, who had already mentally checked out of the game at this point, to coast a few more rounds then quit. Not great decisions, Survivor. But at least he (barely) made the jury the next time out.
- The problem with no idols: Coby, as Koror faces its first Tribal Council on Day 12: "I can absolutely say with 100% certainty that tonight it's going to be Willard. And I don't have the numbers. I can't change those other people's minds." Survivor is a numbers game, and everyone on Palau knew it. For the first vote, the first group on either tribe to claim the 5-4 majority would have the power, and on Koror, that group had been coalescing for at least 11 days. Coby's right: No amount of persuasion is going to shake a group of five out of their first vote together, definitely not for a vote they've been planning for two weeks. He could have tried harder to sway Katie, maybe, because she was probably on the bottom. But she's also an obvious pawn/goat, and has a clear shot at Final Two because of that. On Day 12, they're maybe a week from the merge, and they might never go to Tribal again before that merge, especially with Ulong down to four people after this vote. There's really no incentive whatsoever for Katie to flip. Ian's never turning on his surrogate dad. Gregg has made clear he wants to wait until final seven. So it was a logical and welcome step when idols entered the game one season later. Just not early enough for any power shifts here. If you're down in the numbers on your original tribe, tough luck.
- Even Koror wanted James out: I had completely forgotten that Koror would hold a vote to give an Ulong immunity at the Ep5 Tribal Council (a stunt that would occur again the next season in Guatemala). From a modern perspective, it's weird that they didn't confer amongst themselves beforehand (nor did Ulong after the vote, but Survivor ran a tighter ship back then), but the distribution of the votes is amusing. The eight remaining Korors managed to split their votes across four of the five Ulongs, quite a feat. How would the show have handled a four-way, 2-2-2-2 tie? They just barely avoided that, at 3-2-2-1. The one person nobody on Koror wanted to protect? James. Even Koror could see that voting James out was the only way Ulong could save itself. Sadly, the Ulongs did not. What on earth were Angie and Stephenie thinking, voting for Bobby Jon over James? Just the dumbest tribe.
- The host goes offensive: Probst kicked off the Ep6 Tribal Council apparently seemingly irate that Ibrehem — whose poor swimming ability contributed to his failure to complete the diving task in the previous episode's challenge — only waded out into chest-deep water to help Ulong move bundles of logs onto the beach. This was done in close coordination with Stephenie, who handed her bundle off to him. Meanwhile, James was standing on the beach, messing with his skirt, while Katie and Janu were busy tying more knots on their crate. James rebuffs Probst with "That's [his skirt-tying] not what held us back," so Probst attacks Ibrehem, "Have you ever thought, in these first few days out here, maybe I'm just not cut out for this game?"
This isn't simply asking questions. This is an attack, and a bad faith one at that. Probst knew Ibrehem couldn't swim very well. Meanwhile, Probst's questioning targets Ibrehem's feelings of isolation on his tribe: Ibrehem has been the only person of color on Ulong since the night of Day 3, when Jolanda was booted. He's also the only practicing Muslim on the show, not just this season, but ever, and to this day it's not clear whether the show highlighted this as a learning experience or to make the audience hate him. They certainly showed no qualms in letting James have the last, Christian-centric word on the matter. Ibrehem contributed to Ulong's reward win; James did not. James's magical knot-tying system was untied by Koror, faster than Ulong could untie Koror's. James cost them the Ep6 IC, and almost cost them the Ep6 RC. But it's Ibrehem who isn't cut out for this game. The Black Muslim dude. Got it.
To be fair, Probst does circle back to James later on whether his own poor performances in back-to-back challenges should be grounds for his being voted against, a position James was more than happy to endorse in the previous episode, when the scapegoat was Ibrehem. James says no. Probst doesn't press any further.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes