In the new era of Survivor the merge comes obnoxiously early. Not to play the Methuselah of reality television, but when Survivor first began, making the merge meant hitting a midpoint in the season, if not strictly mathematically (the original merge came when six of 16 contestants had been voted out) then at least on island time. Having the merge on day 12, when only five of the 18 cast members have been voted out, feels like the game is still just getting started. That said, the earliness of the merge does suit this new generation of players, apple-polishing students of the game who are so antsy to get to midterms already.
Survivor 45's merge episode this week will see the final 13 come together for what will likely be yet another merge-yet-not-a-merge, where Jeff Probst will say "not so fast, you have to earn your way into the merged tribe," even if all that means is that you have to survive what is for all intents and purposes a merge vote.
However early the new merge seems, it’s still the most natural point in the game to take stock of which players have set themselves up for success in the second part of the season, and which players the Survivor editors have decided are the main characters of the season so far. In a post-Erika Casupanan world, reading the tea leaves of the show's editing decisions isn't the science it once was, but last season was the Carolyn and Yam Yam Show from beginning to end, so there's still a lot of value in recognizing which players have been POV characters so far.
Taking into account current alliances, game trends, personality traits, and the TV edit, we’ve evaluated the remaining players based on who is best poised to survive not only the merge but the next 14 days en route to the final Tribal Council.
Sifu Alsup would have been voted off two weeks ago had Sean Edwards suddenly decided he wanted to leave the game. Sifu's efforts last week to ingratiate himself to the remaining members of his tribe led to one of them interpreting his overtures as making threats, so it's safe to say he isn't great at making allies in this game. The merge saves him a little bit, in that his old Reba allies will be motivated to pull him back into the fold for numbers, but Sifu also presents a physical threat to win individual immunity, so if the former Belo and Lulu tribes combine to take Reba out, Sifu is a prime target.
The rivalry between Katurah Topps and returning player Bruce Perreault has been simmering since the very beginning of the game. Everything Bruce says, the condescending way he doles out orders, even the dumb dad-joke pranks he plays (oops, guess he lost the flint!) just drives Katurah up the wall, and she's doubly frustrated that everyone else isn't on the same page with her about this. Last week was the closest they came to an outright argument, as Bruce snapped that one of Katurah's suggestions was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard, before immediately backing down (uh, too late).
Given that every episode this season has featured a taste of this conflict, it's going to end up paying off sooner or later. We keep seeing Katurah trying to consolidate allies, and she seems to have Kaleb solidly on her side, but will it be enough? Bruce has Jake and Kellie on his side, seemingly. Sooner or later, one of them is going to make their move.
One of the biggest portents of doom on Survivor used to be when the show only checked in on a player when they were pertinent to a game move. This is what makes me nervous for players like J. Maya Krishnan-Jha, Julie Alley, and Kendra McQuarrie. We tend to check in on them when there is a vote about to happen, as was the case with Kendra last week. Or when they're a part of another player's storyline, as J. Maya was with Sifu last week. Or when they're strategizing with their better-edited ally, as seems to always be the case with Julie. Any of these three could go pretty far in the game, but it's hard to imagine any of them winning at this point.
Austin Li Coon is in perhaps the most dangerous position of anyone heading into the merge. The six original Reba tribe members represent the biggest potential voting bloc, but that only incentivizes the five Belo and two Lulu players to unite and topple them. And Austin is the biggest physical threat of all the Rebas, as least as the challenges have shown so far. But Austin keeps finding advantages. And even if he runs out of them, he's shown himself to be the kind of player who finds advantages. This could keep the other alliance from voting for him for a while, or force them into a risky voting maneuver that could backfire on them.
Drew Basile has been in a tight alliance with Austin from the very beginning, and they've operated well together. But if Belo and Lulu target Reba at the merge, being Austin's BFF is very bad for him, since they'll want to weaken Austin without voting for him (see advantage fears, above). But Drew has been a favorite of the editors all season. He was the very first talking head interview of the season (recall that Carolyn got that honor last season), and the show is constantly checking in on him as a strategic mover and shaker. And his and Austin's strategic bond with Emily might be the best hope the Reba players have of surviving the merge vote intact.
The one constant among the original Belo tribe and the post-swap Lulu tribe? Everyone wants to be in business with Kellie Nalbandian. Kenda and Katurah built a women's alliance with her initially. She seemed to have a tight bond with Brando, though now he's gone. (Reading the edit: Why show us the Kellie/Brando alliance at all, in that case, if not to build a season-long narrative of Kellie as a good social player?) On Lulu, she's on good terms with Bruce and Jake, but Kaleb all but asked her out to prom in his pursuit of an alliance with her. Being the player who everyone wants on their side (and who everyone thinks is on their side) is how you get from the merge to the endgame, and Kellie is that player this season.
It's unclear how good of a player Dee Valladares is as of yet. She's only been to one Tribal Council, where she threw her vote to Sifu even after Sean volunteered his own exit. It was an unnecessarily chaotic move, and it meant she had to spend all of last week's episode doing damage control. But Dee has been a major POV presence all season. She’s explained her strategy in a ton of confessionals. We know which players she's pegged as her allies, her secondary allies, and her targets. It's hard to believe that's all been in service of a player who will get nipped at the merge.
We're not used to seeing Boston players like this on Survivor. The show that made "Boston Rob" a household name tends to cast big, braggadocious "masshole" types. Jake O'Kane is anything but — he's pioneering a new type of affable Boston bro, one who garners audience sympathy every time he stands up too fast and nearly passes out. Slowly, Jake, slowly!
Last week, there was a big segment about Jake's life, how he overcame an eating disorder and lost a bunch of weight, with Survivor as the culmination of a long road of self-improvement. Jake's is probably the most affecting story of this season, and in recent years we’ve learned the producers tend to invest this much backstory in players who go far. Jake is well liked, well positioned, and he's got a story to tell in front of a jury if it comes to that.
Too often, Survivor fans suffer from goldfish memory and are convinced that the current season is going to play out exactly like the previous season. Last time, the merge constituted two powerful alliances of original tribes, with the ragtag losers of the Tika tribe waiting to get picked off. But of course, the Tikas ended up being the swing votes between the two big alliances, and Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Carson managed to play the middle all the way to the final four.
Cut to season 45, and the original Lulu tribe has been decimated even more severely, with only Kaleb Gebrewold and Emily Flippen remaining. Kaleb and Emily made a fateful alliance in the second episode, and thus far, it's been the most consequential alliance of the whole season. That alliance saved Kaleb in the Lulu vote that ended up sending Sabiyah home, and with the merge once again presenting two large alliances in original Reba and original Belo, Kaleb and Emily may once again swing the course of this game.
There's no guarantee they'll be able to play the middle as successfully as the Tikas did last season, but they've both shown themselves to be very good at this game. Kaleb is a sparkling social player, incredibly likable, able to seem genuine in his interactions. Emily is… not that, and that's why we love her. But in recent weeks, she's shown herself to be shrewdly adaptable to changing game conditions. And after coming on so strong and off-putting in the early weeks, the other players may have it in their heads that Emily is a good person to drag to the end since she won't be likable enough to get any votes.
But as a certain two-time Survivor winner once said, I don't know about that. If Survivor has had a main character this season, it's Emily. That doesn't always equate to a winner (see Carolyn last season), but if Emily can navigate these choppy merge waters and play the middle — Step 1 is getting together with Kaleb and figuring out which one of them is going to have to burn their newly made allies — then it's not hard to see her making her logical case to the jury at the end. People aren't stocks, Emily has said, in the season's best confessional. What better way to pay that quote off then to have her take these newfound lessons about humanity and parlay them into a Survivor win?
Survivor 45’s merge episode airs Wednesday, November 1 at 8:00 PM ET on CBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.