Episodes 9 and 10, the merge and the first fully post-merge episode, is a really solid two-episode stretch of Survivor: Fiji. The merge episode has a lot going on, but despite some fairly intensive meddling by production, the individual game kicks off in style ... until it becomes a team game again, and delivers one of the fandom's least-favorite twists. Then the next episode brings us a bona fide highlight of the season: Turning that frown around with the thwarting of the Horsemen and their attempt at the first modern idol play.
So again: the merge is an episode where almost all the surprises come from production, then it's followed by one where production eases up on the gas a tad, and allows the players to actually play the game. And in doing so, it plays out in glorious fashion. Perhaps this is something the show ought to remember once in a while.
The merge: twists on twists on twists
There are so many traps and snares production tries to spring with the merge. First the tribes aren't told they're merging, but they know something's up, because treemail instructs them to bring all their "personal items, but no rewards or tools" and go to Exile Island. The contestants eventually figure out to check the Exile Island tower, where most of their questions are answered — new buffs, plus a note telling them to go to Moto. They're (probably) merged! Cheers ensue, especially from Mookie, who thus far has spent the entire game at the godforsaken Ravu camp. But hold up, bro: This Exile detour was necessary because production was busy dismantling and removing the entire luxury Moto camp, returning it almost completely to its original state — just a cave plus a few supplies (pot, machete, plus fishing gear and a flint). As such, it's more post-swap Ravu, just in the Moto location (or Ravu with a well).
This is fine. No big deal. You do wonder if anyone later hiked up the Moto/Bula Bula hill to where all the construction supplies had been stashed in the premiere, to see if there was anything left up there. But as Earl and Michelle said, they'd been at Ravu, and this was still a step up, so whatever. No merge feast of course, at least not until later ... and then only for five of the ten (unless the IC winners saved some of their feast, which they may have).
The more memorable twist is, of course, what happens at and after the immunity challenge. Everyone's thinking "yay, individual immunity," but it's obviously not: on arrival, they see orange and green lanes, orange and green mats ... clearly something's up, even Boo can figure that out. So it's an IC done in randomly drawn teams, and the winning team gets a feast and the chance to skip Tribal. Eh. Whatever.
But that's not where it ends: There is of course "a note" for the losing tribe, which portends future bad news. And that bad news is: Go directly to Tribal, no discussion, no strategizing. This is not great for the people involved, and it obviously leads to less strategy, not more, so it's unclear why production loves it so much (they used it again in the premiere of Cambodia - Second Chance, and it wasn't great then, either). That said, having a post-merge team IC is a decent twist when used sparingly, as long as the Tribal attendees are allowed talk after the challenge, as in Ghost Island and Island of the Idols. Let the players play!
Really, though, overall the twist is not uniformly terrible. It does screw over Michelle, sure. But it's fun to see Alex solve the "no strategizing" problem in real time, by giving irritating non-answers to Probst. This predictably triggers Probst to keep asking the same question, "Give me a reason why you should vote for X." By repeating "I don't have a reason to vote for" everyone except Michelle, Alex breaks the system. Smart move, especially since it uses the host's interview tendencies against him.
This IC/Tribal twist and Michelle's subsequent boot often ends up high on fan "screwed by the twist" lists. It's true that Michelle was not in any danger if this had been a normal merge Tribal Council. Everyone was happy to boot Boo. But what if it had been a normal, individual IC? Michelle's still not in danger, but there's a good chance Boo saves himself.
If they had just swapped the ICs on either side of the merge, and the Ep8 IC (spears/archery/blowdarts) had instead been used for individual immunity at the merge, and the Ep9 IC (rowing, puzzles) was used in Ep8, Boo and Yau-Man were the top performers in the target challenge the first time, so they're the two likely contenders for the first necklace. As we pointed out last time, Boo and Yau-Man end up being the top individual challenge performers this season. So regardless of the challenge, there's a good chance that with no twist, we'd have all the same scenes of everyone plotting to take out Boo, only to have him win immunity.
Then what? Do the Horsemen still try to pull in Stacy, despite Mookie and Dreamz's objections? Do we get the idol hand-off an episode earlier? Does Mookie realize the Horsemen have no shot, and stick with original Ravu plus Cassandra and maybe Dreamz, to take out Stacy? Probably one of these!
So there wasn't really any huge payoff to this final twist, besides the loss of Michelle, whom the editors had spent the previous seven-plus episodes hiding anyway. Although when you think about it, the final six episodes of Fiji are really a boring Pagonging, it's just that post-swap Moto takes out post-swap Ravu (except Dreamz). Or at least it would have been, if not for Michelle's surprise boot throwing that off. So at least we had that.
Still, random teams for challenges and a single "tribe" is one twist that the show should try more often, not less. We've said it many times before, but we'll say it again: A full season of it, perhaps with varying mechanisms of picking teams, would be great! (A.k.a. Pirate Master rules.)
The brief history of the Horsemen
For all the fond memories of the Horsemen's downfall, on rewatch it's funny when you realize just how short-lived their alliance actually was: They barely made it through half an episode intact, and their ultimate demise comes less than two episodes after their birth. (Also, they're just the Horsemen, nobody ever gives them a number, because that would be stupid. Although obviously the number four is implied, from the Revelation context.) Still, Alex and Edgardo's smug grins turning to worried frowns may be one of the funniest few seconds in Survivor history, so even if the Horsemen were never really much of an "alliance" beyond the name, it was all worth it in the end.
A brief history of the Horsemen, then: The phrase never appears until early in Episode 9, right as the remnants of Ravu realize they're about to merge (above), and make plans to stick together, to divide and conquer the Motos and each try to pull people in. (Actually a good plan!) Then, shortly after they move to the merge camp, the alliance has already broken in half, as Mookie and Dreamz object strongly to Alex pulling Stacy in, because it transforms a balanced 2-2 tie at final four into a 3-2 minority position for them at final five. So now it's two Horsemen, plus Mookie/Dreamz.
Then at the surprise team-based merge Tribal Council, it breaks down even further, as Mookie votes against Alex's very obvious wishes, following through and putting his vote on Stacy, while Dreamz decides to split from his plan with Mookie, and vote for Michelle instead, allegedly because he doesn't know her. So the Horsemen were together for exactly one vote, and that was the almost-quit of Lisi. Yet they live on in Survivor lore almost entirely for how even more spectacularly they come back together briefly, only to crater completely in the next episode.
The main reason the next episode works so well is all the zigs and zags happen as the players make plans, adjust to new situations, plot, and counter-plot. Everyone is finally playing the game, some better than others. Here's the sequence of events:
- As the episode opens, Dreamz has just hung Mookie out to dry at Tribal Council. Mookie was trying to betray the Horsemen, get rid of Stacy, and keep Michelle around, which would allow him the option of sticking with old Ravu. Dreamz was supposed to be on board with this, but Dreamz double-crossed Mookie (and in doing so, delayed his own revenge on Stacy, but he probably realized that keeping Michelle helped Mookie, not him). It's a mess back at camp: Alex is mad at Mookie (who claims he didn't pick up on Alex's hinting at Tribal), Mookie is mad at Dreamz, and the old Ravus are mad that Michelle is gone.
- Boo approaches Earl about an alliance, one that will last through to final five. Earl accepts quickly. He doesn't really trust Boo, but he needs his vote, and he perceives that Boo doesn't really have close ties to the other original Moto guys. We also learn that Earl and Cassandra are 100% with each other. Earl's "tribe within a tribe" is growing.
- After the reward challenge, Cassandra immediately exiles Mookie, which makes him super angry at the old Ravus, and reaffirms his commitment to take out Earl and Yau-Man. Even though he voted the way they would have wanted at the previous Tribal Council. Mookie also finally gets to see the Exile Island clue sheet, and it takes him two seconds to realize that by the third clue, it should have been blatantly obvious where the idol was. So he's pretty sure that thrice-exiled Earl must have the Moto one.
- Cassandra (for unknown reasons) gets a delayed decision to pick the people who will accompany her on the overnight yacht reward. She picks her new alliance-mates Yau-Man and Boo, and adds Dreamz, who she was previously close to, but who had been stuck on Ravu with the Horsemen for a while. She wisely leaves Earl behind, presumably because he can be trusted not to backstab Cassandra and Yau-Man while they're gone. Far more trustworthy than leaving Dreamz behind, anyway. Good choices by Cassandra.
- This brings us to one of the worst attempts at deception in Survivor history. On the yacht reward, Yau-Man is toasting "the Syndicate" (Earl, Yau-Man, Cassandra, Boo, and Dreamz), but Dreamz, who is playing both sides, makes no response whatsoever. Boo and Cassandra keep pushing Dreamz throughout the night, "So you're locked in to the alliance now, right?" and Dreamz continues to give them complete silence in return. Even Boo is sketched out by this. Very subtle, Dreamz!
- Before the immunity challenge, Dreamz fills Alex in that he is the target for the majority alliance. Earl expresses his worries about Dreamz's loyalty, because he seems to be spending a lot of time talking to the very guy they're planning to vote out. To prove his loyalty, Dreamz then tells Earl and Cassandra (and Yau-Man, who just walks up to the group) that Mookie has the Ravu idol.
- Yau-Man then wins immunity, reducing the Horsemen's boot options. As the vote approaches, we get another instance of terrible attempts at deception. The Horsemen can still save their idol, if Alex can just convince Stacy to vote with them. Unfortunately, Yau-Man has just convinced her to vote for Alex, and or at the very least, not for Earl. So when Alex asks her to vote for Earl, Stacy responds with: "......." Alex asks "Are you okay?" Stacy swears she's just hot, and "agitated." Alex comes away thinking "Wow, she's just out of it." Edgardo has to explain to him that she's actually out on their plan.
- It's not clear how they knew something was up (maybe Stacy told Alex that Dreamz had blabbed about the idol?), but Edgardo then comes up with the idea of having Mookie give the idol to Alex. If everyone's voting for Alex, he'll have the idol, and they'll all be saved! Done and done. They accomplish this by ... having Mookie "drop" the idol out of his pocket and Alex pick it up ... in front of everyone, in camp. (?!)
- Side note: It would be interesting to know for sure whether the idol could be handed off at Tribal Council, or if it had to be passed in camp. Obviously, modern rules say just to do it at any time before the votes are read, but there may have been a different rule here? Some modern advantages have had a rule requiring them to be transferred in camp, which seems overly restrictive, but production seemed to think it was a good idea for some reason. Why else would Mookie and Alex have attempted this ridiculous dropped handover in the middle of camp, instead of by the well or on the beach somewhere? There's a major omission in transparency here.
- Somewhere in here, following Edgardo's advice, the Horsemen also switch their target from Earl to Cassandra. Most likely because Mookie suspected Earl had the idol (also perhaps because they guessed Dreamz had already leaked Earl's name). This plan Edgardo comes up with was actually pretty good. Cassandra was indeed a hinge in that alliance, she was friends with Earl and Yau-Man. Booting her weakens Dreamz, and Cassandra's been growing closer to Stacy, since they're the last two women, so it limits Stacy's options, too. And Cassandra was unlikely to be given an idol, if Earl had one. So a smart choice. The plan just required the Horsemen's idol play to work. It didn't, obviously.
- Also, full credit to Stacy for suggesting the correct counter-play to the Horsemen having an idol: putting their votes on Edgardo. Dreamz swore that Mookie gave the idol to Alex (because of the botched handover in camp), but they weren't entirely sure if he was telling the truth, or acting as a double agent. So if you're not sure whether it's Alex or Mookie who's holding the idol, go for plan E.
- So all in all, it's a pretty remarkable turn of events that the outcome still ends up being a surprise, despite all the back-and-forths, despite Dreamz leaking every plan to everyone else on the beach, despite nobody really being sure whether Dreamz is telling the truth. Both major alliances still make the best plays available to them. It just ends up not working out for the Horsemen. In retrospect, that makes this a far more satisfying 5-4 vote than the fall of the Rotu Four in Marquesas. Here, everyone was happily playing the game. The players in Marquesas had a lot of stuffy, self-righteous, hypocritical disdain for the gameplay. Much more pure enjoyment here. (Except maybe for how mad Edgardo still was in his exit interviews.)
- Despite all these machinations, the Horsemen almost saw it all coming in the moment. In his exit interview with Staci Krause at IGN, Alex mentions that he and Edgardo suspected it was one of them getting votes, and in watching people fill out their ballots, Alex wondered if something was up because 'you know, they are taking a really long time to write Alex.' Had he just gone with his gut and given the idol to Edgardo, the whole Horsemen's demise collapses, and instead we have the first successful modern idol play at this spot. (Eh, we're good with what actually happened.)
- The winner is always comfortable: All season long, Earl has been the main strategic narrator. While Alex had risen in the ranks of people talking about their games, it's really just been the two of them, plus maybe Yau-Man here and there, who have been allowed to do this. They're our only real winner candidates. But one additional tell is that Survivor winners almost always appear at ease, having fun, enjoying the game. That person is 100% Earl in the merge episode. He tells us he had "a little smirk" in response to the gutting of Moto camp. He has "a tribe within the tribe" that forms Bula Bula. His only concern, really, is whether Michelle's okay at the merge Tribal Council, but that's out of his hands. When it turns out she's not, he ends up with a really big smirk at the next Tribal Council. This is Earl's game; everyone else is along for the ride.
- Dreamz is the Walter White of Fiji: Dreamz started off the season as a good guy, talking about the lessons he learned having been homeless growing up, and working hard with Gary to provide food for the entire tribe. While in power on Moto, Lisi and Stacy treated him and Cassandra like dirt. As Dreamz moves on through the game, his gameplay becomes more and more a revenge story. He's slowly turning away from the light and towards the dark. Sadly, as with the Breaking Bad protagonist, it's all for naught. He gets his revenge on Lisi, then on Stacy. He wins some challenges. He gets a truck! And in the final act, he offs consummate good guy Yau-Man, then receives zero jury votes for his efforts. Fiji is the long, slow process of watching the good, Episode 1 Dreamz gradually get consumed by the game. "Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair!" indeed. (Actually, Ozymandias would be a great name for one of the Ozlets two seasons later, if that coupling had worked out.)
- Idol fear: This was the first play of a modern idol that had to be presented *before* the votes are read, following two straight seasons with all-powerful Super Idols that could be played after the vote. It's hard to assess how much the (accurate) fear opponents had of Terry's and Yul's idols carried over to this season. The history of idols in Survivor to this point showed that people just avoid voting for the idol holder, lest that person "gets to choose who goes" with their sole non-cancelled vote. Here, it appears the target shifted away from Earl due to that fear. Earl plays a great all-around game here, but how much of Earl's power in this season derives from the perception that he probably had an idol? We never really get direct confirmation of this.
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