When we first heard of this twist (in a CBS press release), we assumed it would function just like an early merge would: strong players would be targeted on the opposing tribe. (Rob Cesternino had the same reaction on Know-It-Alls.) With at least two to three more episodes to go before the actual merge, each tribe's goal should be to weaken the other tribe as much as possible. That they approached it this way was clear from the pre-Tribal discussions: Names like Sandra and Brad (leaders) were floated, and ultimately, Malcolm and Sierra were picked due to their challenge and/or overall performance. Malcolm had just won a reward challenge for Nuku. Sandra specifically said, "Sierra Dawn Thomas... simply because, that's their strongest female over there." Given Probst's known predilection for protecting challenge beasts (hello, Redemption Island!) this was a curious twist for Survivor to attempt.
But that's the result that this twist is almost always going to produce. Clearly the show's production team is correct in thinking that they ratcheted up the drama by springing the single-vote/combined Tribal concept on the tribes at the last minute. But instead of that turning into another vote like the chaotic Jeff Kent boot in Philippines, the players were simply unsure where everyone's loyalties were, especially on the opposing tribe. This is why JT's gambit to secretly reassure Brad and shift Mana's votes onto Sandra fell flat: You can't trust someone who's coming up to tell you something at Tribal. Well... Brad trusted JT's intel, but JT shouldn't have trusted Brad to follow through. That uncertainty and lack of prior, private communication will forever force players to make the safest decision, and stick with their tribe, rather than boldly carving out a new position. Because of that, this turned out more like the no-discussion first boot in Cambodia: existing divisions (there, "beach people" vs. "shelter people," here tribe vs. tribe) will be hardened, and the targets will always be someone perceived as integral to the other tribe's success.
As we are all no doubt weary of hearing, Survivor is at its heart a social game. You convince people to vote out other people instead of yourself. Later, you convince those same people to give you a million dollars, after voting them out. We hear that a lot because it's true. That precarious balance between good behavior and bad behavior is what keeps people coming back to this show season after season.
As with post-merge Redemption Island, this twist gleefully chops off half of that equation in search of something shiny and new. We're perfectly happy with shiny and new twists, as long as they're fair. This wasn't. Here, there are no repercussions at Mana for Brad betraying JT's trust. In fact, everyone is thrilled. Here, the social game is a non-entity. Everyone is expected to survive this vote by... not having been perceived as a threat on TV in the past, or from a distant challenge mat. Malcolm had never talked to Brad, Sierra, Debbie, or Tai in-game. What social skills was he supposed to use here? Similarly, Sierra had never talked to Malcolm, Sandra, Aubry, Varner, or Michaela during Game Changers. At least with a merge, everyone has a day or two to actually make connections with each other before voting someone out... you know, actually playing Survivor. Here, nah. Pure crapshoot. Emphasis on the crap.
We can already see Jeff Probst's counter-argument forming here, since it's the same one he uses whenever fans object to any twist: "You're just mad because it happened to the wrong person." That's not untrue: We are mad, and it did happen to the wrong person, one of the most dynamic and creatively thinking players on this season. But let's look at it a different way: This is a grossly unfair twist, and it's probably a good thing a fan favorite fell victim to it the first time, because now we should all be motivated to complain enough that production decides to nip it in the bud, rather than trot it out in next 4-5 seasons in a desperate attempt at more huddles and whispering. Having two tribes meet temporarily to vote out one person violates core Survivor principles. That should be our main objection.
Tribal Council is supposed to be a forum in which players are held accountable for their actions within the tribe. Having a group of interlopers come in and potentially outnumber the tribe itself completely hijacks that process. Clearly, both tribes tried to vote out someone they'd never met during this game. That will always be unfair.
It could have been even worse: Mana could have voted against Michaela, whom they'd never even seen on TV. But it was still unfair. Malcolm waited the right amount of time before coming back to play a third time. He was playing just low-key enough that he was building strong connections with people like JT and Aubry, people who could serve as buffers. And then... beaten by a bunch of rules. A bunch of rules that Survivor had changed on the spot.
Merge vs. Tribal convergence
The other major supportive argument for this twist that's been emerging online is that there's no major difference between this and the merge vote. That's true to some extent, in that similar people will likely be targets in both scenarios. But the major difference here is that, unlike the merge, the targets have close to zero opportunity to fight back. Consider the following:
When two tribes come together for the first time at Tribal Council, it's a public forum. There's really no opportunity to cut private deals with potential allies, especially when everyone you might undercut is present and watching and listening. Even if you huddle and whisper, you can't go promising someone final three if they stick with you. Even if they were on your original tribe.
Worse yet, it's not a merge, and the individual game is nowhere in sight. A challenge beast can at least win individual immunity at the merge. Maybe even one man and one woman can. In contrast, here both tribes now return to separate camps, and will compete against each other again (twice!) next episode. So there is a massive incentive for each tribe to cripple the other by taking out a strong challenge performer. Which Mana did.
Because of that imperative, and the limited ability to talk, the most likely outcome will always be a vote split along tribal lines. Just as individual immunity or holding an idol often gives contestants the necessary feeling of comfort to make bold strategic moves, the reverse is also true: Contestants will retreat to safety in numbers when everyone is potentially at risk. In a tribe-vs-tribe situation, it's always safest to stick with that tribe, even if you're on the outs with your tribemates, because if you make it through that vote, you still have to go back to camp and live with them. It's in everyone's best interest to keep their own tribe strong, especially on Day 11.
A final, less merge-related point: The drama that accompanied this twist was its real selling point. But the only reason this was really *that* memorable was was because Tai had an idol (and because Malcolm was the victim, but a Malcolm will usually be the victim). Imagine if Tai hadn't found that idol at the last minute. Then it would be a straight tribal-line vote, with someone from Mana getting booted 6-5, simply because they had smaller numbers. How would that be fair? Might as well not even bother letting Mana vote at all. Keeping in mind that production pulled the trigger on this twist before Tai found that idol. So the expected outcome at the time it was launched was a 6-5 Pagonging, unless Hali or JT flipped. Which they didn't, ultimately.
Great twist. Much drama.
And you were...?
This is a minor point, but with the various alliances still mostly divided along original tribal lines, it's becoming all the more confusing that CBS chose to jam the first two episodes together on premiere night. Those original Mana and Nuku tribes existed for six days; the swapped tribes are now at five days. So the players have still been swapped less time than they were on their original tribes. But as viewers, those tribes were gone after the first week, and we've had two weeks to get used to the three post-swap groups. So maybe it's not surprising that it's difficult to remember whether Troyzan was on the red or blue tribe originally. And what about Aubry? And this mystical character known as Andrea? It's all a dimly remembered blur, and we're only able to back-calculate the first tribes because some people are together and some are currently on the outs. It's going to be super-confusing if Ozzy and Cirie start targeting each other.
The numbers, revisited
Major movement in overall longevity this week, as Ozzy has now played the second-most days in Survivor history. Fittingly catching a stingray and avoiding his tribe while doing so. He's now two days behind Boston Rob's all-time record, so depending on how many days the next episode spans, he could tie or even break the record this coming week.
Sandra has now attended Tribal Council 27 times, and received just one vote against her (plus the two she voided with an idol in Heroes vs. Villains). That's not the best all-time VAP-to-TCA ratio, though, since several players have zero votes against, albeit mostly from a single season. Among two-time or more players, that's true only for Mike Skupin, although he did this in a mere 10 trips (combined) to Tribal, thanks to a medevac in his first season, and skipping Tribal in the entire pre-merge of his second. Mike Holloway attended Tribal 11 times in Worlds Apart, without a (non-idoled) vote against.
Several of Sandra's current castmates are among the returnees with the next-lowest career VAP totals, but that's mostly because several have rarely been to Tribal. Sarah Lacina, for example, has only been to Tribal Council twice. Michaela also entered this season with two career trips, and Debbie three, although they're both up to a lofty five appearances now.
Despite his short tenure this season, Malcolm still cracked the career leaderboards in both votes against (VAP) and votes for boot (VFB), with 14 each. He made up no progress towards unseating Russell Hantz on the career idols found leaderboard though, sadly. Although maybe Tai or Troyzan or Ozzy still has a shot?
Speaking of idols, Sierra now has the most votes blanked by a single idol play without finding one herself (0 idols found, 6 votes voided). She passed Jerri Manthey's gift idol from Parvati in Heroes vs. Villains in doing so.
Other Game Changers Episode 4 recaps and analysis
Episode 4 exit interviews: Malcolm Freberg
Episode 4 podcasts