There used to be two, maybe three Survivor episodes per season that were guaranteed crowd-pleasers: the premiere, the merge, and the finale. Of these, the finale is historically the least reliable, because despite the high stakes, an unpopular winner can sour the audience to the experience. The premiere remains the most foolproof: Every fan is always excited to see the new players (or old players in new combinations), or just to see Survivor again after at least a couple months off.
That leaves the merge, which historically has been a celebratory occasion: Two or three tribes become one, and the jockeying for endgame power commences. If this were a pro sport, it's the end of the regular season, and the start of the playoffs. It's a time of new beginnings, new opportunities. Someone on the bottom of their tribe can reverse their fortunes by flipping to the opposing original tribe, or things can simply mix up in unexpected ways. It's fun for the audience to anticipate how it might unfold. It's fun for the players too, because they get a merge feast and new buffs, and more importantly they finally get to see some new faces and hear new stories.
For some reason, after its 40th season, Survivor decided that all of this was too much of an uncontested layup, and instead asked: What if we didn't make it fun? For the players OR the audience?
On the plus side, this season we have dumped the worst of Survivor 41 and 42 experiments — the hourglass twist — where Probst duped the players into "earning the merge" in a grueling team-based challenge, only to have that victory snatched away in a day or two, by the arbitrary (but also completely expected, both times) decision of someone who didn't even compete in the challenge. Not surprisingly, this was highly unpopular, both with the audience and with those players who somehow "un-earned" the merge. But the bones of that format remain: Dividing into two random teams, someone sitting out, only half of the assembled players receive a merge feast and merge buffs. It's better than it was in 41/42, but it's still vastly inferior to the way a merge episode used to be, when there was a clear division between the team and individual portions of the game. It's no longer an event. It's an unnecessary dawdle.
And it's frustrating, because despite the positive step of removing the hourglass/"turn back time" twist, we're now left with just the single team-based reward/immunity challenge, and no individual challenge at all. Since Borneo, *that* has been the clearest indicator of the start of the individual game: Someone winning individual immunity in an individual challenge. Someone establishing themself as a physical threat, as people start to calculate who best fits their endgame plans. We can give 41/42 a pass here, and say their "merge" episode really spanned the Ep6 (RC/IC)/Ep7 (hourglass) episode pair, since it was a normal 3-day cycle with only one vote. Survivor 43 is the first "merge" episode with no individual challenge. Instead, we had seven people immune. That's not a merge, it's a one-episode swap down to two tribes. Which was already done once, in Cambodia. And they didn't try to pawn it off on the audience as a "merge" episode then.
Not only was this structurally more like a swap, the Survivor 43 "merge" also went out of its way to drain much of the big-event/ new tribemates feel from the episode, due to the lopsided editing that focused almost entirely on the original Baka tribe. That's understandable, since the Gabler-Elie feud was a big part of the pre-merge storyline, and its conclusion drove the action here. But it still felt like Coco and Vesi were merely bystanders (who for some reason got to vote) at Baka's Tribal Council.
Survivor used to be about big changes in location, format, and twists between seasons. Truly a big new adventure every time out. Now it's the same beaches, same number of tribes, same number of contestants, almost the same challenges, and virtually the same calendar every single time. Can't we have please have something new? (Or at least stolen from another franchise that still has novel ideas?)
The half-merge timebomb
Let's set aside that the new merge format is boring. One of the absolute dumbest aspects of it is that the show's entire motivation in limiting the number of people eligible to be voted against appears to be trying to force a second Advantagegeddon into existence. The original, of course, was the convergence of so many idols and advantages at the Final 6 vote in Game Changers that all-time great player Cirie Fields was eliminated from the game, despite nobody voting against her. It's one the show's great tragedies, and it was and continues to be entirely avoidable.
So of course the show's #1 focus since then has been forcing the contestants to play Jenga with sticks of dynamite in the hopes that — "Oops!" — the whole thing topples in a massive, entirely "accidental" explosion, one the *contestants* caused, not production.
Let's look at the active idol and advantage repertoire heading into the IC (helpfully summarized by Owen, above): There were a whopping FOUR active idols. There were two people who couldn't vote. There was a steal-a-vote advantage. Survivor production saw all of this, and said: "Almost perfect! Okay, now let's have a random draw for two teams of six. (If only we'd given them one more idol, sigh. Make a note for next time.)"
Imagine if it all went exactly the same, except that Gabler's blue team never quite caught up, and lost the IC. Gabler's now eligible to be voted against, so there's a reasonable chance Elie leads a (more covert) charge to blindside him. Everyone knows he has an idol, so it's imperative he doesn't get wind of the plan. As always, Sami is almost certain to tell him. So Gabler plays his idol for himself. Jeanine, who has no vote and is otherwise a sitting duck, then plays her idol for herself. Karla, finger on the pulse of the game despite her injured hand, doesn't want to risk 1-in-4 odds of missing the merge, and plays her idol for herself. That likely triggers the already immune Cody to play his idol for his closest ally Jesse, who also has no vote. That leaves Ryan and Dwight as the only people eligible to receive votes. If neither was a target in the first place, we end up with a 0-0 tie, and one of them is the final non-merge-maker on the revote.
That is so dumb. But that appears to be what the show was hoping for. (Except they were also hoping someone could use the Knowledge is Power advantage to steal one of those idols.)
Enough with the half-merge. Please?
Out with the merge, in with Baka
Again, rather than a traditional merge episode where the individual phase of the game kicks in, this episode was almost 100% focused on the Gabler-Elie feud within Baka.
That's far, because it was the story of the vote. So it makes sense that it took over the overall edit of the episode. That's fine, but problematic for a traditional forward-looking projection of how the jury phase might go. Since we really have no information about how Coco and Vesi are looking at their new (merge) tribemates, let's look instead at the people we were shown: Baka.
Elie's time ran out early, but she's exactly the kind of player Survivor should try to cast every time. She's a longtime fan of the show, she's a compelling narrator in confessionals, she plays aggressively, and she has no qualms about speaking up when something bothers her. She's also her own Achilles' heel, overestimating her own effectiveness since approximately Episode 2. (Which, as she notes in her exit press, is where her "I'm way better than I even thought" [at Survivor] soundbite came from.) She has the tools to do well, or she could stumble and fall. That's relatable, and the show needs self-motivated people like that. In a perfect world, Baka attends Tribal at some point after Ep1, and the Gabler-Elie dispute is settled there, before the merge.
It's easy to reduce Gabler's vendetta against Elie to something petty: He's been seething for 10 days because someone had the AUDACITY to re-read a note he'd already shared with the entire tribe a few days earlier. That's the reductive view. But after Elie and Jeanine's initial betrayal of his trust with the bag search, they went further, with their bizarre, insulting scheme to convince him his idol was no longer valid. Then they collectively tricked him out of bead to activate Jeanine's idol. Despite Elie's denial, it was a pattern of disrespect and manipulation that confirmed they thought he was a huge dummy.
So his wanting to settle that score at the earliest opportunity makes sense. His tactics — extremely public airing of grievances — left a lot to be desired, though. Frankly, the Cocos and Vesis should have been more suspicious that they were being played, that it was all a set-up, and it would all end with Gabler playing his idol for Elie (and James being idoled out). But nope, it was just Gabler being Gabler. What you see is what you get. Are we sure he's not a time-traveling Brandon Hantz?
Going forward, every non-Baka player should be extremely wary of Gabler. (Jeanine should be even more wary, if that's possible.) While his actions were justified, it's hard to overlook that he turned on someone who personally saved him from being the Ep1 boot. He holds grudges, and has no qualms about seeking vengeance against a former ally. Handle with care!
That leads us to Sami, who has one of the most confusing edits the show has seen in a while. On paper — and from his edit on the show — he's doing everything completely wrong. His closest ally is Gabler, who could turn on him for the slightest of transgressions. He's taken on the hero role in multiple challenges, making him a target as soon as individual immunities roll around. His edit has undersold him pretty hard, as well. He seems like he's grossly overestimating his position in the game: From his terse, ALL CAPS confessional style, to his glee at pulling off the massive subterfuge of pretending to be 22 when he's only 19, he comes across as an arrogant loudmouth, someone who's been long overdue for a fall.
But from Elie's exit press, it turns out Sami has actually been playing spectacularly well to this point. (See, for example, her EW interview with Dalton Ross.) Elie's #1 was Jeanine, sure, but Sami was a very close #2, despite the fact that he's been actively selling her out to Gabler since Episode 2. Elie had no idea! Even when confronted about Gabler tossing her name out at the merge feast, Sami was still able to convince Elie that Gabler had already figured out someone had searched his bag, so they had to admit to him that Elie/Jeanine had done it. For whatever reason, this was not shown on TV. Sami's reassurances and apparent acting during Tribal were enough to convince Elie she was safe, so much so that she told Jeanine NOT to play the idol for her.
So what should we make of the edit burying Sami's actual social/strategic skills? It can't be a good thing that the show is hiding some of Sami's best moments, can it? All of this suggests trying to wrestle the Alligabler is not going to work out well for Sami.
It's hard to know who had the worst reads on Baka: Jeanine or Elie. Whoever came up with the harebrained scheme to convince Gabler his idol had expired is most at fault, obviously, but they both believed they had somehow convinced him of it. Jeanine's clearly a smart person (recent Harvard grad), but it's difficult to be that off the mark. Oh well. She now has an idol AND a vote, and is free to seek out greener pastures with Coco and/or Vesi. She enthusiastically greeted Noelle, so maybe that's her next stop? Wherever she goes, hopefully Elie's boot has been a learning experience.
That leaves us with Owen, whose game has been so subtle, both his tribemates and the editors seem unaware of it. He's been a great narrator, but the camera feels like his closest friend. He's the third wheel in the Sami/Gabler boys club (one they apparently didn't bother to tell about the Elie vote), and was also the third wheel for Elie and Jeanine (now #2!). Like Jeanine, he desperately needs a better alliance somewhere that isn't Baka. He's been a valuable challenge performer (except perhaps in puzzles), which is worrisome, since the individual game starts next week. Hopefully he finds his niche, and can get deeper in the game than the standard early post-merge culling of the physical threats.
- Be very afraid? Probst had a particularly glaring ADR overdub this episode, as he handed out rocks prior to the RC/IC: "Sometimes the game comes down to these moments of chance, you're just drawing a colored rock." That's a scarily similar justification to the one he gave for "Do or Die" the last two seasons. What sort of abomination does he have in the hopper this time? (Note that the pairs element looks an awful lot like SurvivorSA's one major twist misstep: Tied Destinies, at least from how it's shown in the preview ads.)
- More wisdom from the host: "You know you're on Survivor when you've got blood" - Probst responding to Karla's mid-IC hand injury. Thanks, Jeff. Incrementally more helpful than "rub some dirt on it," although probably more hygienic.
- And that's when we knew Cody was 100% safe: After the IC, Cassidy and Elie propose getting Coco and Baka together to boot Cody. Cassidy says in confessional: "I feel like us girls should kind of get together and maybe do something." Spoiler: No, of course they didn't. You can't even have a two-woman alliance on a quasi-tribe of 13 people, apparently.
- Keeping everyone focused on what REALLY matters: Probst, redirecting the conversation at Tribal: "So Karla, there had to be talk of advantages, idols, Shot in the Dark — things that could change, or blow this Tribal up?!" Never change, Probst. Never change.
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