Survivor 42's merge episode(s) did some things really well, and (re)-did some really objectionable things.
The best part of the two-hour coming together of the tribes was the expanded time to watch the contestants mix, connect, and cautiously try to find out where they fit in the new collective hierarchy. (Except for poor Rocksroy.) Normally, this is crammed into an hour, and the extra runtime real estate was used well here, with scenes of crabbing, general chatting, personal connections, and an extended plan/counterplan sequence at the end.
The back-to-back airing of the two hours required to get from 12 people dropping their original tribe buffs to 11 people receiving their merge buffs was also a nice change from Survivor 41. The hourglass twist, just like last time, was not something that required (or deserved) "cliffhanger" treatment. There was one obvious decision to be made, and Rocksroy made it.
The worst part of this very extended merge was of course the hourglass twist. On the plus side, it will almost certainly be gone next season, because production's entire interest in this twist was in pulling a hilarious prank on the contestants, and that can't be done when they're expecting it. On the minus side, it's the hourglass twist. As we remind you below, the host lied to the contestants, and it establishes two extremely troubling precedents: (1) that any game event can be reversed on the whims of the producers, and (2) it's perfectly fine for the host/ executive producer/ showrunner to lie to the contestants whenever he feels like it.
There were, of course, other problems as well. As it was last season, the decision to make half the tribe immune at the merge vote is an interesting idea, just one placed in a terrible position in the game. The merge vote is one of the most important ones of the season. It establishes the post-merge balance of power, something the contestants have been fighting for weeks to gain the upper hand in. Letting multiple people win individual immunity at the merge is one thing. Having that safety hinge instead almost entirely on a rock draw, however, that's something quite different: It's stupid.
It was stupid when it took out Michelle Yi in Fiji, it was stupid when it took out Sydney Segal last season, it's stupid now. It's dumb because it takes all the effort the individual tribes made in the pre-merge to maintain numbers and establish good connections, tears that all up, throws it into the air and squeals, "Wheeeeee! Confetti!"
Let the players play the game!
The rock draw for immunity challenge teams would be fine at a later even-numbered Tribal, like Final 10. Let the contestants form their alliances, watch it play out a couple of rounds, then throw in some anarchy. It worked well that way in Ghost Island. Even the hourglass twist, or some reversal of fortune that hinges on a forced sit-out might be okay, if it was for reward instead of immunity. Putting all of these things together at the merge vote, however, will never stop being absolutely boneheaded.
One more thing: With casts now composed almost exclusively of longtime fans who have forever dreamed of playing, the show's continued insistence on exactly seven pre-jury members (every season since S28: Cagayan, except the two Edge of Extinction ones and, for some reason, S39: Island of the Idols) seems arbitrarily cruel. Winners at War had 16 jurors. Why is nine suddenly too many now? Just let everyone who reaches the merge at least make the jury. Nobody's giddy about the pathos of that one last person getting screwed as the game moves on. (Except, apparently, Jeff Probst.)
Still, at least we saw enough of the final pre-jury boot, Lydia, to feel her disappointment at this injustice (and of course, in an even more asinine twist also repeated from last season, she also technically did not make the merge tribe).
We can hear Jeff Probst's recruiting ads already: "We want real Survivor fans to play this game," the host alleges. "Mainly because we're planning to randomly take away all the precious milestones you anticipated reaching, just because we think it might make you cry, since you dummies actually care about this crap. Apply now at cbssurvivorcasting.com!"
All the lies Probst told this time around
At last season's merge Tribal Council, Danny McCray famously (if you listen to podcasts and/or read exit interviews, at least, since it was mostly edited out of Survivor 41) loudly objected to the bait-and-switch involved with the hourglass twist.
Mostly, Danny's complaint centered around Probst pumping everyone up to win what was pitched as a grueling, all-important, not-quite-merge reward/immunity challenge, where the winners earned merge buffs, a merge feast, and the promise of individual immunity — despite Probst knowing perfectly well there was a twist coming immediately after that would all but certainly take it all (except the feast) back away from the victors. And force those *same* people who gave their all to win that RC ... to compete again for individual immunity, while the people who lost the reward would be given immunity in exchange for winning zero challenges.
Then as now, Probst's pre-RC admonitions were peppered with phrases like "You have to *earn* everything this season." Which was, for the people who just were given free immunity, an obvious lie. Also for the people who had their merge buffs and safety stripped away at production's whim, despite having very much earned them. And in typical Survivor fashion, it was done in the most underhanded way possible: Production wanted this to happen, so they used the hourglass twist "choice" to pin all the blame for it on the unlucky Exile attendee.
At the time that episode aired, Probst acknowledged that maybe Danny had a point, and that things might be tweaked a bit this next season (a.k.a. Survivor 41, version 1.1).
If you've ever seen Probst field complaints about twists he enjoys, he has two possible responses. Option 1: Nod, act like he hears you, then do the exact same thing again, because he's Jeff Probst, and you're not (see: Redemption Island, after S22). Option 2: Say publicly that if anyone doesn't like said twist, "I daresay they're not a Survivor fan." Shaming or ignoring: Both fun choices!
So it's perhaps little surprise to anyone that Danny's efforts yielded ... not much. These were the "tweaks" made this season, as listed by Probst himself, pre-challenge:
So again, let's count the Lies of Jeffrey Lee Probst here, as he addresses the cast, pre-Applebee's RC:
1. "Like everything else in this game, you are going to earn your way into the merge." What did Lindsay or Rocksroy do to earn anything? (Rocksroy at least spent two days on Exile.)
2. "First team to finish earns their buff. The merge buff." - Obviously, he completely omits that it will almost certainly be taken away again two days later. (Oh well, as Hai said, "We'll always have Applebee's".)
3. "You will also earn immunity at that first Tribal Council, which means you don't have to compete in that first immunity challenge. ... You'll still vote, but you can't be voted out." - This is the biggest whopper, and mostly what Danny objected to. Probst is saying: "Put in 100% effort here, and if you win this 'biggest reward of the season,' you'll be safe! Guaranteed a spot in the merge tribe!" In reality, 99% of the time, if you win this challenge, the opposite will be true. In fact, you'd be much better off just sitting down on the starting line, refusing to dig up the dumb rock, taking the L with its associated rice "feast," and basking in your free immunity two days later, courtesy of the hourglass holder. There is no "earning." It is absolutely a free lunch for the losing team. Lydia did the work on the puzzle, earned her spot ... and was voted out.
Moving on ... here's what he said post-challenge:
4. "Here's what you just earned: Your buffs, immunity ... which means you don't have to compete at that first immunity challenge." Again, complete lies here.
5. "[The other person will be exiled] for two days and two nights, where they will live alone, with no buff, no immunity, no shelter, no food, no company, nothing." Rocksroy received two days' worth of rice, as did Erika. And of course, he got to give himself a buff and immunity, as any reasonable person would.
The one major change here is this line: "The person you send away will have the power ... to change the game."
That's it. That's the big change.
This is a line on par with a covered item at an auction being described as "an advantage in this game." It doesn't say anything about what the power is, nor how powerful a change it is. It's just "power to change the game." It could be an idol. It could be the 500th extra vote doled out this season. It could be a steal-a-vote. It could be a plate of rocks to huck at the producers for coming up with such a stupid twist. Who could really know in advance?
No wonder nobody was willing to give up a feast and "guaranteed" immunity for that. Drea's calling the exact twist (later, in camp) was impressive, but was almost certainly included in the edit as a cover-your-ass, "See, we didn't *lie*! They figured it out!" attempt. People constantly speculate on unknown things like this (who was booted by the other tribe, what the next challenge will be). Someone was bound to land on it eventually.
Of course, at the food reward, and also as the non-rewardees are talking at camp, they make multiple references to Probst saying "Are you *sure* one of you doesn't want to go?" when the winners selected Rocksroy, so it's possible Probst was a little stronger in his warnings than was shown. But importantly: we weren't actually shown that, so we have no way of knowing for sure. Either way, he definitely hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt here.
Oh well, let's see who the merge episode is hinting might be able to win after this mess.
The cases for Omar, Mike, Hai, and Drea
A truism for the merge episode(s) is that it usually highlights the eventual winner in some way. Whether it's a foreshadowy "winner's quote," or seeing the merge/post-merge game from their perspective, or even just making a lot of connections: It's rare for the winner to be hidden here. With that in mind, we run through the people who shone the brightest at the merge, in roughly descending chances of winning.
Omar: King of the merge episode. He* had a clear winner's quote: "We didn't come here to eat, we came here to win." (*Actually, this was Drea, whoops. Omar was just in the center of the screen, so it wasn't obvious. Thanks, anonymous reader.)
He was also frequently the central focus. When the Applebee's crew returns to camp, it's Omar shown front and center greeting people, and Omar gets the first confessional about how the merge is going down.
He had a second winner's quote in that same sequence: "I will jump up like a big shark from the ocean, and eat some of these people up when the time is right." Well, at least it's not a bird metaphor/simile this time.
Later, when he learns from Hai that Chanelle lost her vote, Omar doesn't let on that this means he lost his, too (on screen, from later conversations, it sounds like it might have been discussed). Omar then uses that information to decide that since Chanelle didn't tell him she lost her vote, she can't be trusted. A logical sequence of events and an impressive recovery after an "Oh, shit!" moment.
Most impressively, Omar was in on the conversation when the non-alliance-of-eight people were plotting (as was Lydia), and later checked in with Lydia about her proposal to target Jonathan. Getting a clear signal that Lydia was okay targeting a fellow alliance member (Jonathan), he used that against her to rally the alliance to take her out. Even Hai and Mike! Hai attempted a counter-measure, but it fell short. Omar had no vote, but brought about a last-minute vote change, all while solidifying his relationship with Jonathan, and being (mostly) straight-up with Mike and Hai about his reasoning.
Everyone likes Mike! Drea, Jonathan, Maryanne, Omar all seem quite happy to work with him. (Surprisingly, no evidence of the Jersey connection with Lindsay, which seemed like the most obvious one pre-season.) Mike bonds with Drea and Maryanne over their shared idol-holding. He doesn't appear to get any further information about who else knows (at least from Drea), although he probably should have guessed that if his whole tribe knew about his, chances are everyone else does. He has a fellow big guy in Jonathan. And he's just generally nice to Omar, who seems nice back. He's convinced Hai from their time on Vati that he's as straight-shooting as they come, his word is his bond ... all that.
These are all great signs for Mike moving forward. He's trusted, people like him, he has options, and he has people looking out for him (or at least saying they will).
The one big merge episode case against Mike winning is that the episode starts off with him irate that Chanelle put his name down (even though he voted for her), and saying he'll take a bullet for Hai or Lydia, but not Chanelle. This same episode(s) ends with Mike voting for Lydia. On the one hand, Omar explained it well, and it makes sense to not make waves this early, but it's hardly the optimal merge edit for a winner.
Still high on Hai: Hai was shown as the architect of the alliance of eight, which is good, even if that alliance ultimately didn't hold, and his closest ally was voted out. For more short-term deal-making, while it was Lindsay who was shown as getting the amulet holders together to chat, it was Hai who proposed they work together, instead of targeting each other.
The truce between the amulet holders is a good move at this point, although like the alliance of eight, it seems unlikely it will last for that long (as he himself recognizes). They just collectively bought time to plan their moves against each other. This at least forestalls the bloodshed for a few rounds.
For more edit positivity, Hai was shown taking the hourglass twist in stride. It's always good to appear capable of handling even the most unfair of twists. He also had a great heart-to-heart talk with and offered support to Romeo. He was also the only person eligible to receive votes at Tribal Council who didn't. All good stuff for Hai.
Obviously, though, it wasn't all rosy: He told everyone he was tight with Lydia, then ended up voting her out. This doesn't inspire trust from people you've just met, although the alternative (refusing to go along and demanding the boot be someone else) also isn't great. Also, in his confessional about his last-ditch attempt to save Lydia, he inadvertently praised Omar: "Moments like these are where good players fold, and great players prevail."
Drea the driver: After seeming a half-step behind people like Swati, Tori, and Romeo at Ika, Drea took a much more active control of the strategy here. She quickly bonds with Mike over idols (after sending the others down to the beach to retrieve the clothes they laid out, before the tide gets them), and warns him about Tori. She immediately slots in to Hai's proposed majority alliance, bringing Rocksroy along. When Omar frets he's lost his vote, she offers him her extra vote, which on its surface seems like giving away too much, but Tori already knows about it, so it would have come out anyway.
Still, as the majority alliance broke down to a battle of wills between Omar and Hai, it was Drea who should have held the most power, although she (apparently?) failed to bring any of her presumed numbers into the majority voting group (Rocksroy voted for Lindsay, Romeo for Maryanne). Was that intentional? If it was her design, it's not a great sign for Drea that we weren't shown why those stray votes were made. If those were rogue votes, she's a leader without followers. Then again, Survivor editors are known for forgetting to show women playing, so who knows?
It's quite possible that Omar and Hai are headed for a Jeremy-vs-Josh or Zeke-vs-David Wright showdown, and neither will actually prevail, clearing the path for someone else like Mike or Drea. (Drea in particular feels like the most likely to emerge unscathed from the amulet game of chicken.) Or maybe even someone further down in the pecking order, who we should now move along to.
The cases for the rest
Lost in the crowd-ed edit: Romeo. Romeo had a wonderful story moment as he connected with Hai over their respective experiences in being out gay men, particularly gay men with immigrant families. Apart from that, though, Romeo had very little agency in this vote, despite saying he wanted control after he was given immunity. Why did Drea not push to include him in the alliance of eight? Why couldn't it be nine, for an evenly matched 3-3-3 set of people from original tribes? Why on Earth did he vote for Maryanne, when he wanted Jonathan out? If there's one episode/vote where you want your move explained, it's the merge, and Romeo's was not.
Waters muddied, possibly bloodied: The Taku trio of Maryanne, Jonathan, and Lindsay. All three caught votes at this Tribal Council. All survived, but Jonathan's clearly an obvious target, and the collateral damage/ contigency votes are already hitting his allies. They do have some tricks up their sleeves (well, Maryanne's sleeves), and Maryanne held her nerve and didn't burn anything yet, despite receiving votes.
Maryanne and Jonathan both had good confessionals demonstrating awareness of good gameplay principles (allowing other people to put forth names and agreeing with them; minimizing threat level as much as possible). Maryanne's perhaps felt a little bit like it was being used ironically, since she talked over Romeo in the clip shown about her "listening" skills, and made Tori double-take by putting out that it was fine to keep Drea around, since she'd be a shield. Jonathan at least got buy-in from a few others that without him they'd starve, which might sway a vote or two down the line.
For her part, Lindsay only talked about the amulets, and about scrambling after the IC.
Of the three, Maryanne seems the most explicitly on the outside of Taku, but Lindsay's the one with the least screen time, and thus the one with the least plot armor. Everyone saw through Lindsay's attempt to deflect the vote away from Jonathan. Collectively, these three are looking like they're in the same position the Yases were last season at this point. Omar can't save all of them every time, can he?
We're saying there's a chance: Chanelle. Two-thirds of the merge tribe has been told not to work with her. Groups of people scatter away like roaches in the light when she walks up on them. (The second time was pure comedy: Hai explicitly says "we all walked away last time, so let's talk," as he waves Chanelle over and greets her with "We all have good vibes, and they all really like you...." Chanelle nods. Ten seconds of silence follow. Then Jonathan says it's time to go spearfishing.) She's a smart player, and she didn't really do anything wrong in voting for Mike. But it's difficult to see how she can turn these numbers around after being this far in the hole, especially when just about everyone else has an idol or advantage. She did get to repeat Drea's line ("I didn't come here to eat, I came here to win"), so maybe that's sort of something?
Rocksroy didn't have much of a shot coming into this episode, although he at least had Romeo and Drea on his side vs. Tori. He was endearingly positive and reflective on Exile, and had a great quote about appreciating the experience: "I was meant to be right here." While it was great to get to learn more about Rocksroy, including his worries about his vision, those two days on Exile weren't ideal for his game, although he did return to find a seat saved for him in the majority alliance. He seems like he should get along with Mike. (Who doesn't?) He's predictable, as he says. He's a straight shooter. He's the Butch Lockley of the new era: Works hard, says what he thinks, *loves* firewood. He can be a loyal number for someone, and in doing so he'll get to enjoy a lot more sunsets. It just seems unlikely that his hourglass smashing will eventually lead to a million dollars the way it did for Erika.
Tori most likely saved herself by winning immunity. Just as with Chanelle, everyone was warned about working with Tori, so she's in a huge social/strategic hole. But Tori decided that, having won immunity, it was the perfect time to start digging, by telling Jonathan to his face that she would be voting for him, because she wanted to keep winning immunity. It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off.
- Great moments in play-by-play: The orange team is pushing their ball over consecutive ridges, and get a good run at it, easily clearing the first one. As the ball ascends the second ridge, Jonathan tries to guide it over, and it looks like it might work. Probst: "Jonathan! Single-handedly ..." [the ball rolls back down in between the ridges] ... "almost pushed that ball over." You can actually pinpoint the second where Probst's heart rips in half.
- The all-shields alliance: Multiple people talked about keeping obvious threats (Jonathan, Drea) around because they would be useful as shields later in the game. At what point do the shields just band together, take control, and ditch the riff-raff hiding behind them? Heck, the three idol-holders, the amulet-holders, and Jonathan have a majority right now. There are limits to the utility of the "shield" strategy.
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