SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
If you're looking for some preamble about what the Survivor merge episode means to the game, you're highly encouraged to check out this roundup of nine former Survivor players talking about how they navigated their merge episodes, what it meant to make it to that stage of the game, and how they view the recent changes that have been made to the merge episode. The merge is almost always a huge deal, and for Season 43, that could not be understated. With the three original tribes entering into the merge near equal in number — four Vesi, four Coco, five Baka — this was always going to be a huge turning point in the game. It also turned out to be the end of the road for one of the major characters from the pre-merge stage, as Elie saw her torch snuffed after a post-merge scramble and a 7-2-1-1 vote at Tribal Council.
It's been a few years since one of the three or four central characters of a season has gotten snuffed at the merge. Joe Anglim getting the boot on Survivor: Edge of Extinction was five seasons and over three years ago. Elie had been playing a sloppy game back on Baka, and it's not exactly a shock that she got toppled at the merge vote, but she had been so prominently featured in the edit that it felt like she was in it for the long haul. Almost every story that got told about Baka in the pre-merge was narrated by Elie and told through the lens of how it was affecting her game. Elie even got to tell the story of Jeanine making her bead idol. That was a significant investment on the part of producers in the Elie story. That story has now ended, and it leaves room for others to be told.
Before we got there, though, we got the merge competition. In the previous two post-pandemic seasons, Probst and the producers had twist-ified the merge significantly, first by separating the combined tribe into two teams who competed for immunity, and then, most controversially, giving the one player left out of the competition the option to symbolically smash an hourglass, reverse the outcome of the challenge, and give the losers immunity, making the winners vulnerable. Longtime fans largely hated this, especially the hourglass/winners-into-losers part, and as Probst explained the rules of this season's merge competition to the players, it was everything just short of an apology for the hourglass twist. Once again, the 13 merged players were divided randomly into two teams of six. Noelle was the odd one out. But instead of conferring an advantage upon her, Noelle simply was given the choice to cast her lot with the red team or the blue team, sit out the competition, and then either be immune from the vote if she'd chosen the winners or subject to the vote if she'd chosen the losers. "No twists," Probst pledged, "no player's gonna take [immunity] away." Now let us never speak of the hourglass again.
Noelle chose the blue team, and a smart choice it was. After a fairly thrilling challenge — particularly a warped-wall/cargo-net climb that saw each team attempt multiple strategies to get each other up and over (including Ryan hanging upside down from the net like a vampire bat) — the blue team was the first to solve the puzzle, spelling out the [sarcastic italics ahead] commonly used Survivor phrase "Earning Your Spot At Every Stage." This now joins the pantheon of Jeff Probst's nonsense phrases like "A Reward With All the Fixin's" and "Last Castaways Back Cast One Away." This left six people vulnerable to the vote: Cody, James, Cassidy, Elie, Owen, and Sami.
After the challenge, strategy flew fast and furious, but three people found themselves in the most serious danger: Cody was the only Vesi vulnerable, but Elie wanted to work with him, and in general for the old Baka and Vesi members to team up against Coco. This put James (and, to a lesser extent, Cassidy) in the crosshairs. Elie maneuvered them both into agreeing to target Cody, then went back to Cody and said the Cocos were targeting him. It was some solid game play and might have worked if, over at the winners' feast, her own old tribemate weren't planting the seeds of her demise. Gabler, still upset that Elie (really Jeanine) searched his bag for his idol clue three episodes ago, told the gathered group about this transgression and that Elie wasn't to be trusted. That's sometimes all it takes at the merge, and the way Karla's face lit up at the suggestion of dissension within the Baka ranks was all you needed to know that Elie was in trouble.
After the two teams reunited back at camp, Jeanine told Elie about Gabler's treachery, Elie confronted Gabler, Gabler threw Owen and Sami under the bus as the ones who told him about the bag search, Elie confronted Owen and Sami who were (genuinely) frustrated with Gabler, but (secretly) not totally onboard with Elie. Meanwhile, word got back to Cody that Elie was the one planting seeds with James and Cassidy to get them to target Cody, all of this coming at the absolute worst possible time, since Gabler was already making her look like a snake. It was both fascinating to watch her entire house of cards crumble around her, but also frustrating to know that it was all because Gabler — who doesn't seem to have much of a larger strategy beyond personal grievance — narced on her. And so another hard-charging gamer bites the dust at the Survivor midpoint.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: The way the strategic play was spread out all over the island, it's tough to credit any one player with the best move, especially since I'm unwilling to give Gabler more credit than he deserves. Give it to James for immediately clocking that Elie was up to something and for being able to (with the help of Karla and Cassidy, seemingly) forge a bond with the former Vesi tribe.
Honorable Mention(s): Sami joining the majority to vote out Elie was perhaps a shrewd move to differentiate himself from Owen, who stayed loyal to Elie and thus maybe put a target on his own back if that gets made public.
Sketchy Strategy: Elie played too hard. Gabler is playing too recklessly. But I'd also love to know what was behind Noelle casting that stray vote for Cassidy. (Karla also cast a stray vote for Owen, though that may have merely been in case of an idol play.)
Alliance Report: Who knows, really, but at the moment it seems like the old Vesi (Jesse, Cody, Dwight, maybe Noelle) and the old Coco (James, Cassidy, probably Karla) are in a momentary alignment. Ryan declared his disloyalty to his old Coco members at the top of the episode, so he's likely more of a free agent.
Coming Next Week: Noelle is maybe going rogue.
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