SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
As the years have gone by and the strategy of Survivor has evolved, the importance of pre-merge tribes has taken a nose-dive. In the earliest seasons, tribal success in the pre-merge stage could make or break your game. The very first season of Survivor famously saw the infamous "Pagonging," with one tribe systematically dismantled by the other, which stayed fiercely loyal until the end. In the second season in Australia, tribal alliances were so strong that the tiebreaker in the first merge boot dictated how the entire rest of the season would go.
Since then, Survivor has worked to, if not make tribe success not matter, at least make tribe success not be the only thing that matters. Tribe swaps during the pre-merge stage did a lot to de-emphasize initial tribe strength, and the preponderance of idols and advantages have given players a lot more reason to play for themselves and seek ad-hoc alliances outside their original tribes. This has all been good and fun and more strategically satisfying. But Survivor 42 has been giving me a twinge of nostalgia for the days when tribes really meant something, particularly because through four episodes, we've gotten A Tale of Three Tribes, each with their own distinct energy and vibe, and it's going to be incredibly interesting to see if this has any bearing on who wins the game.
Taku: Great Tribe Energy. After a truly unfortunate start, with Jackson needing to bow out on day three and then having to vote Marya out on day five, Taku has solidified into one of the most purely functional tribes we've seen in a while. This week they dominated both the reward and immunity challenges, showing off their well-rounded combination of brute strength (Jonathan) and puzzle smarts (Omar and Maryanne), and steering themselves clear of tribal council for the second straight week. They also seem quite functional back at camp, despite attempts by the editors to show Omar and Maryanne being frustrated by Jonathan's too-boastful comments at the reward challenge. What seemed more significant about the editing choices for Taku this week was that we're already seeing them talk about who is and isn't going to be targeted at the merge. The show is already mentally at the merge with these guys! That, plus the challenge prowess they showed this week, would suggest there's a great chance they stay fully intact until we hit the second stage of the game.
Vati: Chaotic Tribe Energy. The most we saw of Vati this week was in the direct aftermath of last week's wild tribal council, where Daniel threw his closest ally, Chanelle, under the bus and completely folded under Hai's threat to draw rocks. Now, with the exception of Hai and Lydia, every single one of the strategic bonds that existed a week ago are gone. Daniel — who had the gall to be angry at Chanelle for not getting as much heat from the tribe as he did — has lost the trust of both Chanelle and Mike. Mike lost Jenny in last week's vote. Now it looks like Hai might be making inroads towards an alliance with Mike? That could be interesting moving forward. Point being, we really have no idea where this tribe is headed, strategy-wise. It feels like a maelstrom from which just about anybody could emerge, and who even knows who they'll want to align with at the merge.
Ika: Dark Tribe Energy. This was more than just your garden-variety bad week where a tribe loses and has to vote someone out. This week exposed a whole lot of bad energy floating around this tribe, and it doesn't bode well for anybody's success going forward. So much of Ika's strategic arc this episode felt like a Groundhog Day version of the season premiere. In that one, Tori got caught looking for an idol, Drea formulated a plan to vote Tori out, Zach told Tori that Drea wanted her out, Tori ratted Zach out, and Zach ended up paying the price for Tori's messy strategy. This week was almost a carbon copy. Swati plotted with Tori to vote Drea out because Drea has an extra vote, and they decided to court Rocksroy to their side. But Tori got sloppy and told Rocksroy about Drea's extra vote, he told Drea, and then when Tori started to feel the heat, she ratted out Swati. And so for the second time in four episodes, Tori's closest ally ended up at tribal council feeling bitterly betrayed by her and got voted out. RIP Swati. None of the allegiances on this tribe feel particularly strong aside from maybe Drea and Romeo, and we've seen so little of them strategizing together. Rockroy's only scenes have been him acting pompous and bossy. Swati was the only one getting a strong season-long edit, and now she's gone. At this point Tori feels like an actual poisonous infection on her tribe, and not in a fun way like the Angelinas that have gone before her. This tribe needs to be saged, and even that might not be enough. Burn their camp down and salt the earth, make them start over.
Whether any of these tribe dynamics end up playing a part in the end game this season remains to be seen, but kudos to Survivor for making me believe in tribes again. The golden age of Tagi and Ogakor may be gone forever, but maybe Taku can make one last run at it.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: It's so hard to choose someone from Ika, but I guess it's Drea? It was shaping up to be her outster for a while there, and now she and Romeo are at the center of the tribe's one real alliance.
Honorable Mention(s): Romeo gets the other half of this honor, then. Good for him for recognizing that Swati was making too many promises to too many people, but I still don't think keeping Tori and Rocksroy as allies is going to end well for him.
Sketchy Strategy: Much as I thought Swati was playing well up until this point, getting caught with your hand in four separate cookie jars is not great. It's not that she played too hard, exactly, it's that she didn't correctly identify Tori as a toxic asset in her portfolio, and it burned her.
Alliance Report: They're pretty much all laid out above, though it should be noted that Jonathan and Lindsay remain the strongest under-the-radar alliance this season. We've seen them talk strategy pretty much every episode, and even though the Jonathan-Omar alliance is getting more shine, I wonder if Lindsay might be the secret strength there.
Coming Next Week: We're teased a Jonathan/Maryanne tiff at Taku, but is anyone really buying that those two sweethearts could possibly be angry about anything for very long?
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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