SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
More and more, Survivor 41 is seeming like Jeff Probst's Silicon Valley-style attempt to "disrupt" his own show. Sometimes it's paid off, as it did with last week's rope-a-dope editing that surprised viewers with Naseer completing the triple-idol secret passcode (the phrase "triple-idol secret passcode" would have been nearly incomprehensible to Survivor fans a year ago). Other times, it's seemed like Probst is just trying to break the show apart so he can put it back together again. That's how it felt at several points this week, during the first of a two-part merge episode (as Jeff helpfully broke the fourth wall to tell us as tribes were approaching the challenge). No tribal council this week — just a cliffhanger to an unprecedented development in the game that has, as Jeff describes it, introduced the element of time travel into Survivor.
Before we get into how Probst dismantled this particular merge episode, a word (several, really) about why it's so important to the show. On Survivor, the merge episode has become one of the central marking posts of any season and a throughline that's connected all 41 Seasons. The merge is the first day of March Madness. It's the group round at the World Cup. It's the day when the most players are scheming, plotting, and playing hardest in order to gain the upper hand as the game enters its second half.
A Brief History of the Survivor Merge
In the first Survivor season, long before tribe swaps, hidden immunity idols, and steal-a-vote twists, the merge was the only real structural shake-up of the season. After six episodes that saw the Tagi and Pagong tribes trading victories, the tribes merged at five players apiece, and here is where the Borneo season's groundbreaking alliance made their first big move. With Pagong embracing the every-player-for-themselves mindset now that they'd seemingly transitioned to an individual game, the Tagi alliance stayed strong, and at a tribal council where six of the ten remaining players got one vote apiece, Pagong's spiritual center, Gretchen, was cruelly axed by the alliance. Given how vital alliances are to the game now, and how much strategy focuses on eliminating the strongest players, Ii's hard to remember what a shock it was to see Gretchen — many viewers' pick to win — go so suddenly. And from that moment on, the merge episode became a frequent bellwether of how the season would go.
By season two, players on the Australian Outback had learned the Pagong-Tagi lesson, so this time when they entered the merge five-on-five, both tribes intended to stay loyal and force a deadlock. Back then, ties were broken by which player had received the most previous votes. That was Kucha tribe's Jeff Varner, something that should have been kept secret from the rival Ogakor, but Kimmi blabbed it. And so when Jeff bailed on the immunity challenge for a peanut butter temptation, his fate was sealed, as were the fates of his original tribemates, who were picked off en route to the finale. This was the first of many merge episodes with a kind of Showdown feel to them, with two equally-matched factions on a collision course. In later seasons, the deterrent of a tie — which now leads to a random draw of rocks to see who's eliminated — has meant that deadlocks get broken through social strategy. In Ghost Island, the Domenick-versus-Chris showdown ended with Domenick luring all but a few of the merged tribemates to his side, a victory that helped propel him to the finals.
Often, the fear of drawing rocks will lead one weak link to turn on his original tribe in order to gain safety. This almost always leads to the flopping player becoming ostracized or even voted out soon after. The first time this happened was in Pearl Islands when Lil turned on the condescending, domineering alpha dog Andrew Savage. Jonathan Penner — who'd already once mutinied on his Aitu tribe — flip-flopped back to his Aitu allies in Cook Islands, which earned him the reputation of a Judas. Bullying by his original tribe members led South Pacific's stereotypical nerd Cochran to flop on his tribe, a move that earned him even more bullying. Most epically, "Chaos" Kass flipped on her alliance at the Cagayan merge, mostly because Sarah was pissing her off. Kass made it all the way to the final three but was probably destined to never win after such a fuck-you move. (Perhaps as karmic retribution, Kass was the merge boot in her second season, Cambodia.)
When the merge doesn't arrive at a tribal deadlock, it's often a more humdrum elimination, although that scenario also has its exceptions. The tiny Matsing alliance in Survivor: Philippines entered the merge with only two players — Malcolm and Denise — but they managed to exploit divisions within the other two tribes, survived the merge, and made it all the way to the final four (Denise won). In Survivor: Samoa, the infamous Russell Hantz entered a two-tribe merge with his alliance outnumbered 8-4, but through a combination of hidden immunity idols and the idiocy of the competing tribe, he survived not only the merge but went all the way to the final two.
The merge has been the setting of so many iconic Survivor moments, from Teresa winning at rock-paper-scissors to take immunity in Survivor: Africa to Micronesia's Eliza snapping at Jason that the obviously-fake immunity idol he thought he'd found was just "a fucking stick" (Eliza was voted out that week) to the fake merge in Thailand that saw Shii Ann attempt to flop on her original tribe only to learn that while the tribes were now living together, they were still voting separately.
The two most legendary merge episodes occurred, unsurprisingly, in returning-player seasons. Survivor: All-Stars merged the week after Lex had sacrificed one of his allies to keep Boston Rob's ally/girlfriend/future wife Amber safe, on the implicit promise that Rob would return the favor. Only the favor that Rob returned was a ticket to the jury for Lex, one of the biggest, loudest betrayals in Survivor history. Twelve seasons later, on Heroes vs. Villains, the merge episode saw Parvati Shallow distribute two hidden immunity idols to her tribemates Jerri and Sandra in a successful effort to blindside J.T., who earlier had sent Parvati's ally, Russell, his idol because he assumed Russell was being aggressed by an all-female alliance. The blindside was one of the most spectacular and satisfying tribal councils in show history, and it set Parvati, Sandra, and Russell on a course to the finals.
= = =
And now we have the Season 41 merge, which may go down in history as the strangest of them all.
After Probst first split the final twelve castaways into teams and ran an immunity challenge — where five players would earn safety from the vote — the winning team, which included Evvie, Ricard, as well as Danny, DeShawn, and Sydney from the old Luvu, decided to exile their old tribemate Erika for two nights on what used to be called Exile Island. Bonding, scheming, and alliance-making occurred back on the beaches, but none of that may end up mattering in the short term because in the episode's final minutes, Probst boated up to Erika's island with an unprecedented offer: handing her an hourglass, Probst said she could decide to smash said hourglass and essentially "turn back time," reversing the outcome of the challenge, and leaving the winners – the ones who exiled her — eligible to be voted out and the losers (including her) immune. The episode ended on Erika pondering her decision, but … it doesn't seem like a hard one. Safety versus the very high likelihood that she'll get voted out? That hourglass is getting smashed.
Does this latest twist forever alter the game of Survivor? No. But in a dozen small ways, it picks apart what the show has always been. The simplicity of the merge episode and all of its attendant strategies, the reliance on group strategy versus one player having a ton of power, even the basic concept that winning is winning and losing is losing. Jeff Probst's little time-tuner undermines all of that. It's gonna be a wild ride to see what happens after Erika (likely) throws the game into chaos next week. But Survivor gave us wild rides aplenty before Jeff Probst introduced his little flux capacitor twist.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: I mean … Erika? She's the one who ended up with all the power, even if she didn't do anything to get it.
Honorable Mention(s): Give it up for Ricard, who took control of the word puzzle, winning his team the immunity challenge that very likely soon will not count.
Sketchy Strategy: Okay, I said this back when Yase voted out David Voce, and now it seems to be bearing fruit: Tiffany is way too chaotic a player to be a good game ally. The second Liana tells her about her advantage, Tiffany's interviewing that she's not going to be loyal to her anymore. The alliances this season all seem to have very short leashes.
Alliance Report: Here's the one big, lasting development of this episode: Shan, Liana, Danny, and DeShawn appear to have forged an alliance as the remaining Black players in the game. Shades of the Cookout on Big Brother? (This season of Survivor filmed before Big Brother began airing.) They wouldn't have shown this scene if it's not going to end up bearing fruit later, so keep an eye on this possible power bloc.
Coming Next Week: Will she or won't she? Mark my words: Erika's smashing that glass, kids!
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor 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.