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9 Survivor Alums on Why the Merge Episode Is So Beloved

"The merge is oil and water… But it's the best example every season of what makes Survivor great."
  • Hai Giang, Sophie Clarke, Teresa Cooper, Jeff Probst, Adam Klein, Malcolm Freberg (CBS; Primetimer graphic)
    Hai Giang, Sophie Clarke, Teresa Cooper, Jeff Probst, Adam Klein, Malcolm Freberg (CBS; Primetimer graphic)

    As Survivor has endured — indeed thrived — as America's premier reality competition series, one episode has, season after season, stood out as a favorite among both fans and players alike: the merge episode. Positioned at the midpoint of a Survivor season, the merge sees the separate tribes merged into one mega-tribe and, after feasting (like all good national holidays, the Survivor merge has a feast), set to battle it out as individuals. The merge tends to set the tone for the season and has often featured some of the show's biggest strategic maneuvers, from John Cochran flipping on his original tribe in Survivor: South Pacific, to Kass getting fed up with Sarah lording her power as a swing vote over everyone and defecting to Tony's side to vote her out in Survivor: Cagayan, to Parvati [Shallow] playing two immunity idols — neither on herself — to turn the tide in Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.

    In the most recent seasons, host and executive producer Jeff Probst has introduced a number of twists to the game, the most notorious of which have impacted the merge. These have involved a team competition in which one team is safe from the vote while another is not, followed by one exiled player being given the chance to smash a symbolic hourglass and reverse the outcome of said challenge. It's been controversial at best among both fans and alumni of the show.

    With the Survivor 43 merge upon us this week, we reached out to nine Survivor alums to get their thoughts on why the merge episode endures as a fan favorite, what their own merges were like, and what they think about these new twists.

    Our panelists:

    Teresa "T-Bird" Cooper, who entered the merge on Survivor: Africa down in numbers but managed to win the immunity challenge at the merge — becoming just the second woman, after Kelly Wigglesworth in Season 1, to win individual immunity — and cast a stray vote for Lex that sent him spinning for weeks.

    Rob Cesternino, one of the great Survivor strategists, whose third-place finish in Survivor: Amazon was spurred on by a merge episode where his cross-tribal alliance asserted its power and voted off the domineering Roger.

    Stephen Fishbach, who finished second in Survivor: Tocantins, after coming into the merge at a major numbers disadvantage and turning the tables on the dominant alliance. He made the merge a second time in Survivor: Cambodia.

    Sophie Clarke, who won Survivor: South Pacific in no small part thanks to getting Cochran to turn on his old tribe. She then made the merge again in Survivor: Winners at War, en route to a 10th-place finish.

    Malcolm Freberg, who made the merge in two of his three seasons, first on Survivor: Philippines and Survivor: Caramoan.

    Adam Klein, who made the merge on both of his Survivor seasons, including en route to winning Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen-X.

    Christian Hubicki, who made the merge in Survivor: David vs. Goliath and found himself an early target of Angelina before making his way out of that jam to a 7th place finish.

    Hai Giang, who experienced the psychological stress of the new, extra-twisty merge in Survivor 42.

    Josh Canfield, who was positioned to come out on top in the merge showdown between his alliance and Jeremy's alliance on Survivor: San Juan Del Sur, before Julie unexpectedly quit the game, giving the merged tribe three more days to re-shuffle, spelling Josh's doom.

    What did making the merge mean to you? What kind of a milestone in the game was it?

    Christian: Making the merge was a signal that what I perceived to be the "real game" was about to start. Everything up until that point felt like table-setting and preamble (to mix my metaphors) for what would be this feast of a merge. A literal feast, yes, but then an actual smorgasbord of strategic interactions, all in a short period of time.

    T-Bird: For me — and a lot of other people have told me they thought the same way — I just didn’t want to be the first one out. And from there I think it jumps to "Gosh, but if I can make the merge…" And then, of course, you make the merge, and then you want to say "if I could just get to the final two or the final three…"

    Stephen: There’s such a huge difference between how you perceive your own game if you go out pre-merge versus if you go out after the merge. So obviously there's this huge sense of accomplishment. My first time, especially, I figured there was a very good chance I'd be one of the first few people out, and so to not be the first person out felt incredible. And then to make the merge, it really felt like anything that happened after that point was all gravy.

    Sophie: These days, there is almost a stigma about players who go in "wanting to make the merge." But I have to admit, I was totally one of those players. Not only because it means you get to play a role in choosing the winner (which shouldn't be understated – that’s amazing power! one million dollars!) but also because the merge represents a real shift in the game.

    Adam: Before the merge, and this is true of both of the times that I played, but especially the first time, I really struggled with voting people out. Because I knew how much it meant to me to be there, and I knew that if I got voted out early on, I would have been absolutely devastated. There's just no two ways about that. It felt like everything was riding on me doing well in the game. My mom was sick at the time, and I knew that by leaving and going on the show, I was going to be gone the entirety of the time, whether or not I made the merge. And so making the merge was a little bit of the pressure off in the sense that everyone who has made it to this point has been able to play, and so I stopped feeling as bad about doing what we were there to do, which was vote people out of the game.

    Can you describe the atmosphere once the newly merged tribe arrives at its new camp?

    Rob: The Survivor merge is an interesting shift of euphoria into scramble, where you are going from the excitement of having made the merge and seeing new faces into very quickly "Okay, what is the plan, and am I going to be safe?"

    Sophie: On Winners at War, the merge was pure chaos. Everyone was eager to expand their relationships and set up back-up plans to back-up plans. It felt like speed dating on steroids.

    Hai: The merge on Season 42 was so exciting because there were no swaps [previously], so we were just so happy to meet other people. New faces, new energy. At that point it was like day 11 or 12, so we were all kind of over hanging out with the same three or four people all the time.

    Malcolm: Every time I've made the merge, there’s been a feast, and everyone's acting like this is great and we're so happy to meet you, but everyone's wheels are turning. It’s like going to a posh dinner party where you know everybody actually hates each other and is plotting [each other's] demise. You're all sitting there, and you're genuinely happy to be there, but you can't really enjoy the situation because you're just thinking everything through.

    Josh: I'm sure there are a lot of seasons like this, but on our season specifically, no one knew if they were in the majority or not, because the majority was so fickle. We knew that the middle people — and for us it was Jon [Misch] and Jaclyn [Schultz] — were doing this [hand wavering motion] the whole time, so nobody felt safe, no one felt good. And right before that, I was on a tribe where I was in charge, so it felt good to be there. And then we hit the merge, and it was like “oh God, now my power is gone.”

    Adam: Before I went out to play Survivor, I had seen a post on the Survivor subreddit that detailed the statistics of that first merge vote, and the numbers spoke for themselves. It basically showed that if you are in the minority of that first merge vote, your chances of winning the game just dropped significantly. I don't remember the exact numbers — I would have six years ago, I'm sure I said them in confessional — but it was something like only two Survivor winners have ever been in the minority of that first vote and actually gone on to win the game.** And so to me, it was like I have to be in the majority here, and even if it means that I'm gonna take some heat, I would rather risk going home right now than just be okay with being in the minority.

    **[Editor’s Note: Only three times prior to Millennials vs. Gen-X (and zero times since) has a player been in the minority of the merge vote and won the game: Chris Daugherty (Vanuatu), Danni Boatwright (Guatemala), Bob Crowley (Gabon). Mike Holloway was on the wrong side of the Survivor: Worlds Apart vote, but that was due to an immunity idol play; he voted with the majority.]

    Going into your merge(s), who was your target?

    T-Bird: To me, Lex was the one that I knew I was up against. Lex was my kryptonite. When we all merged, he was telling everybody what to do, how to vote, he was the leader, and everybody was happy to have him as the leader… or so it appeared. And I thought, well that's not going to work for me.

    Malcolm: The first time around in Philippines, we all very quickly settled on voting out [Jonathan] Penner. For about a day, maybe, the two tribes that came together were getting along, and a lot of us had the same sentiment towards returning players, that we didn't want them around. So it was really easy to target Penner, because for whatever reason, MLB MVP Jeff Kent who can only give four-finger handshakes (yeah, I remembered that for the first time in like 5 years) and the rest of us were on the same page. There was this unifying force to get rid of a returning player, and it was really easy to get behind because it was a shared sentiment. But also if you can land on one easy target, it kind of gives everyone space to calm down, and everyone can relax and start plotting a little bit further on.

    Josh: Julie quit right before tribal council for the first vote-out after the merge. At that time Jon and Jaclyn were with my group, and the vote was going to Baylor. So they were with us, and then Julie quit, and then we had another two or three days sitting around. And in those couple of days, things changed because Jaclyn got offended at some things Wes [Nale] and Alec [Christy] said, and how they were treating her, and how they were treating the girls on the tribe. And so she switched, and in turn I was the primary target for the other side and they sent me home. John didn't like Baylor, but John liked Jeremy, so it was kind of to placate him. If I had it my way, my vote would have been to get Jeremy out, because I knew that he was the biggest threat. But to keep Jon on our side, I was like okay, sure, we'll go for Baylor. Anyone in that other group, I’m going to say yes to, as long I can push it on that side.

    In terms of how it affected your long-term game, what was the best move that you made at your merge?

    Rob: I was very much the person who put together the move to vote Roger out of the game in my season. It was a really great move, because it got everybody that I was working with on the same page. And it was so fun for everybody to vote out Roger that it really didn't feel like that there was any sort of heat on me from the move. Overall, I don't think there is anything that I would have changed from the way that went.

    Sophie: On my second season, I navigated the merge okay, but it just wasn't the same turning point that it was on my first season. On my first season, the role I played in the Cochran flip was critical. While I wasn't doing "Coach-chi," I was offering Cochran deals that would make his flip be a smart strategic decision from his side (Albert and I told him we'd never go to the end with Coach, Coach was nuts, and that we wanted him in our final three).

    T-Bird: When I cast a vote at the merge for Lex, I thought this isn't going to take Lex out, but it sure is a start. I had no idea that it would… I don't know if "backfire" is the right word, because I think it backfired in a beautiful way for me, that he would react the way he did. But that was a good thing for me that he reacted that way, because even his own alliance were like "Hey, what's going on? It's just one vote." So it was an accidental good move.

    What's a move you wish you'd played differently?

    Christian: My biggest regret was having a misread on Mike White. At the merge, I met the guy, I didn't know anything about his filmography, I'd seen School of Rock, but that was it. I talked to him, and he was an interesting guy, and in back of my head I'm like, “Everyone's talking about how he's a millionaire and doesn't need the money already.” And I think maybe this is a guy that if I'm looking toward a final option at the end of the game, this is a person who wouldn't be overly heartbroken if they took me to the end and I won instead of him. But I misread him in that he was much more of a mercenary than I expected, taking people out. Not realizing that he was a problem for [my] cross-tribal alliance put me in a bad position.

    Stephen: I do think that letting Kass go at that point was probably not the greatest thing. There was this entrenched power dynamic that was already solidifying, and that didn't really serve me particularly well, and I think Kass resisted that to a certain degree. I wanted to keep Kass because I knew she hated Savage — I mean I don't know, she loved Savage and then hated Savage, who knows with Kass? It felt like losing Kass closed off some options for me that I wish were open.

    What are some of your favorite merge episodes?

    Rob: In recent memory, the one that really stands out to me is Survivor: Cagayan, where it came down to Kass being the person to flip and ultimately voting Sarah Lacina (who felt like that she was going to be the person who was in the safest position, the swing vote) and ultimately turning that on its head.

    Hai: Hands down, my favorite merge episode slash favorite moment was the merge episode of Cagayan. I watched it live, and I think it's just one of those episodes where you're watching a train wreck happen, but the outcome still surprises you. You're seeing Sarah put her neck out on the line, but you're like "It's not going to be Sarah." You did not expect Sarah to be taken out as the swing vote! I think that is so crazy, and I think that's why that episode is so memorable.

    Adam: The Cagayan merge is gripping, absolutely gripping television. That's a big one. Obviously, the Heroes vs. Villains merge, I mean there's just so much that leads up to that point, with the Heroes thinking that Russell is on the outs with the girls, and him playing them, and then coming back, and the letter, and there's just, oh my God, there's just so much great stuff.

    Malcolm: Once Heroes vs. Villains aired, I'd already applied and gotten callbacks to be on the show. And so,of course, once you feel like you have a chance, you start daydreaming about the way you would play. And I remember Parv pulling out multiple idols and going "That's so cool! Wow, what if one day I got to do something like that?"

    Stephen: ​​The Heroes vs. Villains merge was such a huge episode. It’s so fun. I mean, obviously, I was very sad to see JT [Thomas] voted out, but it's such an iconic moment. I really do believe Parvati giving away those two idols was arguably the greatest move in Survivor history. It was such a great move. The editing in the Ghost Island merge was really fun, where they really changed the way the story was told and they made this big Chris [Noble] vs. Dom [Abbate] face-off. It was a really fun way that they told this story of two warring groups. Amazon is a great merge episode that really is a defining merge in my experience as a viewer. You had these groups who said they were going to some degree stay together, and then it’s so fun to watch Rob Cesternino maneuver. Rob and Deena [Bennett] together pull various people from their respective alliances and create this new group and take out the Big Bad of their season in Roger.

    In recent seasons, Survivor has shaken up the merge with things like the hourglass twist. How have you felt about this shift over the last few seasons? How do you hope Survivor handles the merge in the future?

    Rob: Universally, the hourglass aspect of the merge has been reviled, but I do think that there is something interesting to the way that Survivor has forced the group of 12 into two separate teams of six.

    Christian: I like the idea of having only certain people vulnerable for the merge vote. I’ll even draw on my own season for this: At the merge, everything was so crazy, so the result was basically we punted [by voting out] Elizabeth [Olson]. She was the person who kind of stood out, it was almost like a first boot situation all over again. If half of the tribe is immune, odds are you can't do that. You can't just hide behind an obvious boot. And so I think that maybe keeping the tribe half immune helps the chaos and the plotting accelerate during the merge episode.

    Stephen: I think you do want a few twists and powers that are going to add some drama and a little bit of randomness in case things get too stale. But I think with an excess of twists, the question then becomes how are those Survivor players reacting to the twist rather than how they're reacting to each other, which is I think why most of us watch the show.

    Adam: The merge is inherently dramatic. It's about all these shifting alliances coming together. So let it play. The merge is already going to be great; you don't need to inject anything else in it to make it special. The best merges that the show has ever seen have been just people coming together with conflicting alliances and loyalties and having to navigate that. I’ve heard the hourglass twist isn’t back this year; I think that’s great. I hope that they will let them play.

    Malcolm: I've been vocal on social media about not being a fan of an overload of twists. I understand it, they're trying to do things, they want to do something fresh. But if the idea of these twists is to manufacture drama — which, let's be honest, they are — the merge seems like the one time where you don't need anything, because the merge inherently is full of drama. The players will inherently create chaos without the need for screwing with the formula. So if I got one episode to shield from Probst’s bag of tricks, it would be the merge episode, because it doesn't need it.

    Why do you think the merge episode is one of the most popular episodes of the season for fans?

    Christian: The merge is where the game changes. It fundamentally changes, all the incentives change. Things that were strengths are now weaknesses, and things that are weaknesses are now strengths. The people who might have been scraping by from vote to vote because they were not a challenge asset, all of a sudden they're non-targets. And they have some ability to spread their wings a bit. The politics are utterly changed, and there's generally speaking a lot of uncertainty as to how things will go forward.

    T-Bird: I think the energy that the merged tribe has — the fans can see how exciting it is for us.

    Adam: To make the merge is a huge relief. You feel like you can at least be proud of what you've done so far. The reality is if you make it on the show, you can be proud of getting on the show. Thousands and thousands of people are applying for this show, and if you get out there it's incredibly impressive. And yet if that were me [getting voted out pre-merge], I would have been devastated. And my heart still breaks for every single person that gets voted out before the merge, because I know what it would have felt like even my second time around.

    Hai: I think people play a little too risk-averse during the pre-merge stage. They're playing more carefully, they're trying to get to the merge so that they can start playing an individual game. The merge is fun, because that's when people start getting really selfish. That’s when people start becoming very savvy. That's when you have all of these new variables that you have to navigate, and you have to play an unsafe game, and that's when the big moves happen. Generally, the merge is when people start getting very creative with how they're going to take out the bigger threats. I think that's why fans love the merge, I think that's why Survivor players love the merge, I think that's why producers love the merge, that's why they feed us a meal before the merge so the brain juices are flowing.

    Malcolm: The merge is oil and water. It’s fire and gasoline. It’s a lot of metaphors that are probably stronger than that one. But it’s the best example every season of what makes Survivor great.

    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.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Adam Klein, Christian Hubicki, Hai Giang, Jeff Probst, Josh Canfield, Malcolm Freberg, Rob Cesternino, Sophie Clarke, Stephen Fishbach, Teresa Cooper