Xander hit the nail on the head when he described this stage of the game as “Merge-atory,” because that’s where I felt I was – in some sort of Survivor purgatory. For every step forward we go this season, we then take two massive steps back, it seems. I have no idea why the merge episode, a pivotal point of every season, was decided to be split into two parts. Survivor’s audience is rock-solid at this point, so leaving us on what the show thinks is a cliffhanger is just annoying. We don’t need gimmicks to tune in every week; we’ve stuck through Redemption Island, Edge of Extinction, Beware Advantages – we clearly aren’t going anywhere. Survivor isn’t Survivor when no one is “voted off the island,” so just give us a whole damn episode rather than leave us blue-balled after an hour!
Most stories this week were incomplete, intending to be setup for what I’ll naively tell myself will be a satisfying climax next week. There were some scenes I enjoyed, but overall, my talk of this episode is centered around the big, bad, ugly “merge” twist and how it pushes this season further from what Survivor is supposed to be about — when the game is flipped on its head and “winning” is the new “losing,” how the hell are players even expected to play going forward in this franchise?
“EARN” THE MERGE
Jeff’s idea behind this massive overhaul of the game was that the players would need to “earn” their way to the merge this season – a slap in the face to say that the past 11 days didn’t mean anything. Tell me Shan and Ricard didn’t “earn” their way.
Competing in a challenge to win immunity in order to make the merge is a twist I can live with, at least once, but what bothered me so much about this twist and why it is so broken is that the show blatantly lied to its cast. This wasn’t a case of misleading players like in Thailand when Jeff was careful never to say the word “merge,” knowing the players would expect two tribes living on one beach to mean that. He just flat-out lied.
Ahead of the challenge, Jeff talked into the camera and said that the players were “going to believe they’re safe.” Why would they believe that, I wondered? Here’s why: because Jeff literally was going to tell them, “You’ll be safe” at the next tribal council.
Therefore, the players were led to believe that winning this challenge would win them immunity and safety at the next tribal council because that’s exactly what Jeff told them to be true. Presenting an opportunity later to undo that isn’t a “twist” – it’s a complete breach of trust between the cast and Production which is not a trust the show should want broken. Survivor has always had very few rules, but when the players can be overtly lied to by Jeff, I think that’s total bullshit.
Winning has never meant losing in Survivor until this season. First, we saw players “win” advantages that came as actual losses of power, and now we’ve seen “winning” immunity actually mean “losing” immunity. I just don’t understand how we move forward with this. Immunity is immunity. If it’s not, then what’s the fucking point of an immunity challenge?
The responsibility for the “winning” team to send someone to Exile Island for two days was specifically constructed to bring out a negative reaction from the unfortunate person selected – fabricated “drama” for the sake of “compelling” television. There was no question of whether Erika would be upset or not, and she correctly saw through the “Paper, Rock, Scissors” rationale for sending her to Exile. Erika was then given 24 hours to stew over that before Jeff presented her with a “choice” of her own.
The hourglass stunt was hokey already with Jeff doing his best Dumbledore impression and giving Erika a time-turner, essentially, but again, the drama here was completely manufactured. Under absolutely no circumstance would it not be best for Erika to break the hourglass to go “back in time.”
She was just burned by the only people she had any sort of bond with in the game, she didn’t have immunity, and she was missing the first 48 hours of the merge. I don’t care how many bridges I’d be burning by taking away someone else’s immunity to secure my own — I’m smashing the shit out of that glass before Jeff is even finished explaining it to me.
The winning blue team, of course, could never have expected this outcome — winning immunity and then being forced to piss off the person who would later have the “choice” on whether to let them keep their immunity or steal it for herself instead. Where is the actual “choice” in that? The “absolutely no-brainer” moment of the night was Erika hammering the hourglass, despite the show thinking we’d seriously sit here for a week on a cliffhanger, wondering whether or not Erika will do it. Give me a break.
We’ve now witnessed the concept of time travel inserted into Survivor which means we’re living in the worst possible timeline. “Your past has come back to haunt you” with the Outcasts — or variations with Redemption Island and the Edge of Extinction — was one thing, but at least the players could play themselves around that. The returning player(s) also didn’t have a free pass to enact total revenge. Here, however, there were next-to no negative consequences presented to Erika should she reverse the challenge outcome. Sure, she’d make a few people mad, but she’d just been left for dead by those people, so it’s not like she’s really going to feel like she owes them, especially when letting them keep immunity means not having her own.
This season has presented this “risk vs. reward” as a theme, but at the end of the day, Production is going to push for what it wants, and it wants drama, even if it has to be scripted – a sad reality in which we Survivor fans now live. Erika did nothing to “earn” her way to the merge, as was made to be a big deal this episode, but it wasn’t her fault either. She randomly drew a rock that said she had to sit out of the challenge, and then other people sent her to Exile where Jeff came to her with an opportunity. His whole built-up spiel about earning the merge was bogus as a result of all of this. It’s now up to the person who did nothing this week to actually earn her spot in the Final 11 to let the losers become the winners and the winners become the losers. MAKE IT MAKE SENSE, JEFF!
I wouldn’t feel better about these events even if they all played out in a 2-hour, single episode, but at least I’d have a little bit of closure on some loose ends. This episode was mostly a joke and gave me flashbacks to the Brad boot where I was asking myself what actually mattered within the 43 minutes of television I had just watched. I have nothing nice to say about the merge twist, but there were at least a few parts of the episode I liked and — SHOCKER — none of them had anything to do with game-breaking gimmicks.
My favorite dynamic from last week was fantastically carried over into this one (giving me false hope at the top of the hour that this episode would be another good one). Watching the tight team of Ricard and Shan tear each other apart over trust issues is the essence of Survivor to me. They had just proved their loyalty to one another by voting out Genie and going as far as they could go as a duo on Ua, yet their bond was not unbroken.
Shan still held resentment over Ricard holding onto “her” (definitely not JD’s) extra vote, and Ricard had not yet forgotten how Shan had tried to rip all power he had away from him moments before going to tribal council. “I trust him … ish” was a great line from Shan. That’s Survivor. No one is completely trustworthy, but in order to play the game, some level of trust must be had with other players. I think it’s obvious, though, that these two are destined for doom. Long gone are my days wishing for a Shan/Ricard/Genie final three, so in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before we drop the 2 and leave the 0 over what was once Ua-strong.
I expect Ricard to be the first partner to stab the other in the back. He has more ammunition against Shan — she holds an idol, an extra vote, and was the driving decision-maker behind all of Ua’s votes. On paper, her resume is more robust than Ricard’s, so it would make sense for the eventual merge tribe to target her first, but … Shan still has a lot of social capital in the game. Right now, we don’t know if Ricard has anyone on his side except Shan. Shan now has Liana, she’s built quick bridges with Danny and Deshawn — each of those three can use their other ties to shield Shan while Ricard has … who? I think we’ll see him put in a lot of work to change that, but for now, Shan is still steps ahead of him in the game. If he takes a swing at her soon, it may just bounce back and whack him in the face like whatever hit Sydney, apparently:
My money says it was Heather having a “night terror” and punching Sydney smack on the nose.
But seriously, when are we actually going to see this rivalry and not just hear about it? Sydney said herself that she can’t stand Heather, but we’ve still been given little reason why aside from the one challenge blunder. Is Sydney just that competitive? Another incomplete story … as if George R.R. Martin is in charge of the editing room.
Reminiscent of the recent “Cookout” alliance on Big Brother, this emerging alliance should also have America talking, for good reason — unless you’re talking to a Facebook fan, that is. It’s no coincidence 41 has the most diverse cast ever, but I think this is the first we’ve heard players talking about it. Shan said she noticed how the cast is more representative of America, and Liana talked about the shared experience people of color can have from looking different from everyone else in most rooms they enter. I think it’s easy for those of us who may not know what this is like firsthand to appreciate the pressure others who do have had to endure.
The saddest quote from this scene, though, was Deshawn saying, “I thought that I probably wouldn’t get a chance to play with black people in this game.” Big YIKES, Survivor — someone thinking “I’ll probably be the only black guy in the cast” or worse, “all the black people will be the first to go.” I’m glad the show and the cast are celebrating its diversity because it’s 20 years overdue.
I only barely followed Big Brother highlights, but as with The Cookout, I’m sure there will be critics of Shan, Liana, Danny, and Deshawn coming together, claiming “racist” reasons for it. Again, these four share life experiences that not everyone relates to, so it shouldn’t be shocking that, the color of their skin aside, they’d feel a connection and want to play the game on the same side. I also think that wanting to protect each other is different from wanting to attack everyone else. “We could be targets, so let’s team up and not be” is a pretty simple Survivor strategy. Will these four make it to Final Four? Who knows? If they do, just shut up and let it happen.
I’m like a broken record saying that the show is at its best when it’s about the people, and taking the time-turner twist out of Exile Island, Erika’s time there was a much-needed break from the brain aneurysm I was battling. From a narrative perspective, Erika was the perfect person to end up exiled. This was the time to face her fear of fending for herself alone, and she was fueled by the fire ignited from being sent to Exile by the people she thought were her friends.
Erika, too, talked about growing up in Canada and looking different from everyone else, used to not having things handed to her in life (until Jeff pulls up in a boat) and shared about the struggles her Filipino family faced growing up. She said she didn’t have a lot of outdoor skills, so Exile Island would be the ultimate test for her.
I remember not liking Exile Island when it first was introduced as a twist – tame in comparison to what we are dealing with today — because it spent too much time focused on one person rather than the larger cast. However, given that we didn’t get a lot of personal content from anyone else, and Erika was much overdue for more screentime, I was happy she got her exile experience all to herself.
Finally, everyone loves a good ball challenge, especially one with two BIG balls. I usually don’t pay attention to or give praise to challenges because they all blend together nowadays, and while grabbing keys, climbing a human ladder, and solving a puzzle weren’t groundbreaking, a giant fucking boulder buried halfway in the sand was pretty cool, even if it adds more support to my “Survivor is turning into Mario Party” theory.
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR…
Is there seriously any doubt what will happen here? Erika’s 100% going to smash the hourglass, even if flipping it upside down would make more sense given that it’s … an hour glass, but smashing is flashier, I guess? Why don’t we just go full camp here and have Erika start singing some of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” before she tells the tribe what she decided to do.
Deshawn and Danny seem like the most obvious targets of the soon-to-be-not-immune group, but Shan and Liana’s new relationship with them could steer the ship more toward maybe Sydney? The entire Luvu opposition also knows that Naseer has an idol, though, which has me worried for him. Ricard would be silly to boot with Ua already so depleted, and it’s a little early for Evvie to go as well. With Erika as a flip contender, it really feels like we’ll finally lose a Luvu. But with three idols, several extra votes, “Knowledge is Power,” and 5 potential shots in the dark getting played … it seems the silliest decision of all to try and guess at who’s going to go.
Erika – By far the most interesting person this week was Erika. I loved seeing her in the spotlight even if I hated the reason she was there. Obviously, Erika will continue to be important in “Part II” next week and could play a big role in the vote if she decides to flip on Luvu. Erika’s really fun – it’s a shame we haven’t seen much of her since Luvu has been winning everything, but hopefully we get more content moving forward and this isn’t just a two-week arc. I agree with her — “People are going to talk about this one for a long time” both in the game and on the internet. I’m definitely happy for Erika, but not happy with the direction the show took to set her up in the first place. Why do you do this to me, Survivor?
Liana – Also equipped to cause some damage next week is Liana. Shan put her in an uncomfortable position of having to confess to Tiffany what she gained from the journey (/excursion?) which set off some red flags but ones that likely won’t be looked into until a little later. As soon as the yellow and blue teams were determined, it seemed obvious yellow would lose and Liana would be vulnerable, but assuming Erika’s not an idiot, the tables will turn so it’ll be up to Liana on whether or not to steal, presumably, Naseer’s idol. Liana will quickly become the center of a lot of strategy between her advantage as well as new allies in Shan, Danny, and Deshawn. For someone who was only 20(?) when she was on the island, Liana has surprised me a lot and I’m excited to see where her story goes now that she’s made the almost-merge.
Danny – Danny was one who I felt had some strategic focus this week, again bringing up the threat of a women’s alliance against the men. This will either be significant because he ends up driving a woman getting voted out, or he gets voted out himself for driving too dangerously. Danny has to be the biggest physical target in the game, and with Luvu needing to lose some numbers, he’s definitely near the top of my boot list. Just how much sway Shan and Liana will have in saving him, I’m not sure. Danny and Deshawn would be great meat shields, so there’d be benefit to keeping them, but specifically for Danny, I worry. Once your strategic game is able to be compared to that of Rupert Boneham, you’re pretty much drawing dead as a potential winner.
Ryan Kaiser has been a lifelong fan of Survivor since the show first aired during his days in elementary school, and he plans to one day put his money where his mouth is by competing in the greatest game on Earth. Until that day comes, however, he'll stick to running his mouth here and on Twitter: @Ryan__Kaiser