SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
You'd be forgiven if you were holding your breath through much of tonight's episode, waiting for the rug to get pulled out from under you. We've been so conditioned to expect twists, turns, and blindsides at tribal council that many of us have lost our ability to trust a straightforward vote-out when we see one. From the moment Vati choked away the immunity challenge — letting a badly far behind Taku tribe catch up and eventually surpass them — it seemed obvious that either Daniel or Chanelle, the two outcasts whose plans were upended at the tribe's previous vote-out, would get the boot. A little too obvious, really. Surely all those sound bites of Hai and Lydia assuring each other that they were completely safe and in total control of the vote were fake-outs, and Daniel and Chanelle would somehow turn the tables, right?
Actually, no. Hai and Lydia (along with Mike) do seem to be solidly in charge of their tribe. And aside from a few hinky votes at tribal that seem to have been cast to safeguard in case someone rolled their Shot in the Dark die, that alliance voted together to eliminate Daniel, the shoulder-separated over-schemer who's apparently a lawyer but who couldn't make a decent argument to save his life (what was that whole bit about how he hopes he outlives Mike??).
With Daniel gone, that leaves three tribes of four members each heading into next week's two-hour "merge" episode. Those scare quotes are there for a reason, as it seems like Jeff Probst is once again teasing a merge that isn't quite a merge. Will we get a repeat of last season's hourglass twist that allowed Erika to reverse the result of an entire immunity challenge? Remember: Seasons 41 and 42 taped back-to-back, so the show's producers wouldn't have seen the fan backlash to that twist (although there was plenty of backlash on the island itself). Regardless, merge or quasi-merge, we're looking at the three tribes coming together with equal numbers. Something's going to have to give, whether that's two tribes coming together to gang up on the third, or a few floating free-radicals shaking up the group dynamics even more.
The worst case scenario for each of the three tribes is that someone from their group will jump ship and take their allegiance to another tribe. Let's go through each tribe and pick out the one player most likely to defect and throw next week's "merge" into true chaos:
Reasons He'd Defect: No sooner had I finished writing last week that Taku looked strong, cohesive, and unbeatable than it starts fraying at its seams. At camp, Jonathan can't stand the constant yammering from Maryanne and Lindsay. (For her part, Maryanne thinks Jonathan tried to murder her with a machete or something.) Omar is staying out of it, but he can see this is trouble for his tribe. At the immunity challenge, as Omar struggled mightily to untangle ropes and Taku fell into what seemed like an insurmountable hole, Jonathan looked angry enough to snap a tree in half. Is he frustrated enough to seek out more temperamentally aligned allies?
Reasons He Might Not: Are there more temperamentally aligned allies out there for Jonathan? He's kind of the only musclebound alpha out there. Even if he were looking to bro down with some meat shields out there, I'm not sure he'd find anyone besides Rocksroy. Besides, even with all the annoyance, Jonathan and Lindsay seem to remain an incredibly close strategic alliance.
Reasons He'd Defect: After last week's vote — where Romeo and Drea teamed up with Tori to vote out Swati — Rocksroy was left out of the loop, and he knows that's bad news. Tori is actively looking to get him booted, and knowing Tori, she's probably not hiding it well. If Rocksroy sees the writing on the wall, maybe he'd take his chances hopping to another team that might value him more.
Reasons He Might Not: As with Jonathan, Rocksroy's physical strength and challenge ability make him more likely to be a target for elimination rather than a potential strategic pick-up.
Reasons She'd Defect: Chanelle knew enough that she was near the bottom of the tribe's pecking order that she threw a vote onto Mike just in case the other votes went screwy. She ultimately didn't need to, and now she's alienated Mike even further and placed herself in a clear fourth spot on her four-person tribe. Chanelle is a savvy player who's already shown a propensity for taking big — at times reckless — strategic swings. If she thinks she's hanging by a thread with the other three Vati, I could easily see her looking elsewhere for shelter.
Reasons She Might Not: Maybe Chanelle has a stronger bond with either Lydia or Hai than we're seeing? Maybe Vati and Ika just team up together and take out Jonathan as the biggest threat? Maybe Jeff Probst smashes an hourglass on the rocks and poison gas billows out, with the last person standing winning this season of Survivor. We have no idea what madness this merge episode will bring.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Drea got credit for this week's episode title — "I'm Survivor Rich" — because she found her third advantage in five episodes. She also managed to speak her ridiculous line about potato skins with some real comedic timing, and now her immunity idol is fully activated. She's got a lot of cards to play heading into this merge.
Honorable Mention(s): Give it up for Hai once again for taking control of the Vati tribe's vote just like he said he would. I worried that he was saying too much to Daniel and giving him ammo to take to Chanelle, but ultimately Hai's read that Daniel and Chanelle were two scrambling outcasts was the correct one.
Sketchy Strategy: Daniel delivered yet another baffling tribal council performance, unable to string together a compelling argument to keep himself around, talking about how he hopes he outlives Mike, resolutely declaring himself "not an analogy guy" and then five minutes later making an analogy. It bears repeating: this guy is a lawyer! Who knew we had Lionel Hutz on our hands all this time?
Alliance Report: Romeo's human-interest segment this week was a sweet nod to his mother and his desire to ally himself with strong women. He and Drea seem like an incredibly tight pair at the moment, he the cheer coach, she the woman climbing to the top of the pyramid (tree) to find the idol. They could take this far.
Coming Next Week: Brace yourself for a merge of lies!
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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, Jeff Probst