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Survivor 42 Pits Its Dumbest Twist Against One of Its Best Casts

The merge twist made its unwelcome return, but Season 42's stellar cast did their level best to salvage the episode with an epic strategic scrum.
  • Rocksroy Bailey's no-brainer of a decision failed to ruin an otherwise great merge episode.  (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)
    Rocksroy Bailey's no-brainer of a decision failed to ruin an otherwise great merge episode. (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

    SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.

    Of the many new twists and turns that last season's Survivor introduced into the game, by far the least popular was what went down in the merge episode. Rather than a traditional merge, there was an immunity challenge with two teams, followed by one player — Erika — sent into exile, followed by that player given the choice to reverse the outcome of the immunity challenge in order to gain safety for herself, a no-brainer of an opportunity that Erika took. The twist was obviously great news for Erika but it was hugely unpopular with the players on the island as well as viewers at home, who saw the outright deception on the part of Probst as well as the reversal of a fairly-fought competition as running counter to the spirit of the game.

    Seasons 41 and 42 taped back-to-back, something Jeff Probst made clear to viewers this week. This meant that while the objections of the Survivors themselves registered, they hadn't yet experienced the viewer backlash. So while Probst let viewers in on some tweaks they made to the merge twist for this season, fans at home who hated the twist were likely not all that placated by Jeff's enthusiasm that this time around, the merge feast would be provided by APPLEBEES! The substantive changes to the twist ultimately don't come into play here. They involve 1) telling the winning team before that make the choice to exile someone that the exiled someone will have a chance at some unspecified power, and 2) giving the winning team the option to send one of their own into exile instead. That didn't happen, and ultimately it was Rocksroy who was sent into exile and given the choice, as Erika was last year, to smash an hourglass and reverse the outcome of the immunity challenge.

    Aside from the fact that the hourglass twist runs counter to the basic concepts of fairness and competitive justice, there were two major issues with the twist as it presented itself in this episode:

    PROBLEM #1: It's Not a Choice

    Last year, Erika was faced with the choice of either accepting the result of the immunity challenge and heading into tribal council vulnerable to be voted off and without any real allies in the merged tribe or smashing the hourglass and earning immunity. This was not a hard decision. Somehow the decision for Rocksroy was even more lopsided, since the result of the immunity challenge had left both Drea and Romeo — his only two allies — vulnerable to the vote. So Rocksroy's options were to not smash the hourglass and go into tribal with him and his only two allies as three of the six people eligible to be voted out, or smash the glass and earn immunity for his entire squad. And yet somehow two full segments were given to whether or not Rocksroy would choose to smash the glass or not.

    PROBLEM #2: It Invalidated a Really Great Immunity Challenge

    The immunity challenge that got reversed last season was pretty good, but the one this time around was epic, with the team of Mike, Drea, Romeo, Chanelle, and Omar falling behind early in a challenge that required teams to dig in the sand to free up giant balls, roll those balls towards a platform, and use the balls to climb up to said platform, where they'd complete a puzzle. With the other team far ahead and Drea struggling to climb the ball (including falling off in some gnarly ways), Mike used himself as a human ladder (and Romeo as a human stepstool) to get Drea up, before hauling Romeo and Omar up as well. It was one of those challenges that you imagine would bond some of these players for going through something so physically demanding, and it hugely endeared me to Mike, and yet even as you were watching it, you knew it ultimately didn't matter because the twist was coming and actually it was worse to win this one.

    All of the above was annoying at best and potentially catastrophic at worst, especially for a two-hour episode surrounding a beloved Survivor tradition (namely, the merge). Luckily for Survivor and Jeff Probst, the Season 42 cast is one of the show's best and most likable in years, maybe ever. And, twist or not, all twelve players scrambled and strategized their way into making the second hour a rather riveting affair, starting with an improbable immunity challenge win from Tori, who seemed to be quite obviously heading out the door this week, and whose interpersonal skills manage to alienate people by the minute.

    With Tori off the table, and an 8-person alliance having been constructed of Hai, Lydia, Mike, Jonathan, Omar, Lindsey, Drea, and Rocksroy, options were dwindling, and members of the alliance each had different people they wanted to keep safe. In a strategic scrum that included some A+ gaming by Omar (who tried to push the vote away from his allies Jonathan and Maryanne and towards Lydia) and Hai (who wanted to protect Lydia and oust Maryanne), it was ultimately Lydia who got the boot, giving the former Taku tribe (Omar, Jonathan, Maryanne, and Lindsey) a strong position of power at the top of the pyramid. For now.

    That last stretch of the episode was compelling for its frantic hairpin turns of strategy, but it wouldn't have been nearly as riveting if the players involved weren't great characters. Players like Jontathan and Lydia and Mike and Drea and Maryanne make for such a fascinating mixture of personalities and backgrounds. CBS's newfound commitment to diversity in casting continues to pay off; this week we got a segment where queer contestants Romeo and Hai bonded over their shared background, with Romeo (who's in his late 30s) marvelling at how free and open Hai (in his late 20s) is with the way he expresses himself. It's a deeply relatable conversation, held between two queer people of color, and such a scene would have been unfathomable on the show a decade ago.

    Try as it might, Survivor can't seem to choke what's great about this season with its twists. A good sign for the back half of the season.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Player of the Week: In the strategic showdown between Omar and Hai, it was Omar who emerged victorious, keeping his Taku alliance intact and knocking out Hai's closest ally. Technically they're both still in the same mega-alliance, and Hai relenting and voting with the majority for Lydia may keep him safe, but Omar is in a much more powerful position now.

    Honorable Mention(s): Mike had a great episode, between his immunity challenge heroics and making what could end up being consequential long-term bonds with both Drea and Jonathan. He's in a strong position, is seen as a loyal ally, and has a meat shield now in Jonathan.

    Sketchy Strategy: Romeo. I'm not sure he should be blamed for it, but it's telling that when Drea is on the beach with Jonathan and Hai building the 8-person alliance, she ropes in Rocksroy but not him. Romeo is light on allies at a crucial juncture.

    Alliance Report: LOTS of new alliances made during the merge episode! In addition to building bonds with Drea and Jonathan, we saw Mike planting the seeds for a strategic partnership with Maryanne and another with Omar. Hai announced his intentions to ally with Jonathan and use him as a meat shield. Hai also met with Drea and Lindsey, his fellow Amulet holders, who all agreed to work with each other, even though their amulets grow stronger the fewer of them there are.

    As for that 8-person alliance, it's already down to seven, with Lydia out. And Rocksroy threw a vote on Lindsey, which might have been strategic, but might indicate he's not really with them either. At the moment, though, that alliance appears to be: Jonathan, Omar, Lindsey, Mike, Hai, Drea, perhaps Rocksroy, and situationally Maryanne. That leaves Romeo, Tori, and Chanelle on the outs.

    Advantage Report:

    • Drea has one immunity idol, one Advantage Amulet, and one extra vote.
    • Mike also has an immunity idol.
    • Maryanne also has an immunity idol, plus an extra vote.
    • Hai has an Advantage Amulet.
    • Lindsay has an Advantage Amulet.

    Coming Next Week: If you thought this new mega-alliance would be cleanly exterminating the stragglers, that appears to not be the case.

    People are talking about this week's Survivor in our forums. Join the conversation.

    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