Twenty years in, one of our very favorite Survivor rituals remains the "merge episode." That's the episode in the middle of the season where the multiple tribes merge into one, where tribe immunity challenges give way to individual immunity challenges, and where — especially in more recent seasons — the scramble for votes can get truly wild. Old alliances clash with new alliances, big moves are attempted (and sometimes pulled off), and a new kind of game begins.
As we eagerly anticipate this week's "Winners at War" merge episode, we're ranking the ten best merge episodes in Survivor history. Which were the most chaotic, the most iconic and the most memorable?
Voted Out: Hali Ford
On its face, the "Game Changers" merge may not have seem all that remarkable, considering all it did was jettison spacey dead weight Hali. What makes this episode notable is all the work Cirie Fields put into saving Michaela Bradshaw. After a great moment where we see Cirie and Michaela form a bond as black women and where Cirie interviews that she sees a lot of herself in Michaela and wants to mentor her, Cirie sets about the not inconsiderable task of turning the tide away from voting out Michaela and toward Hali. instead That Cirie manages to do this without ever making it look too obvious that she and Michaela are bonded so closely is yet another of Cirie's many Survivor highlights.
Voted Out: Boston Rob
Boston Rob's first season was an inauspicious start for the Survivor legend. His initial tribe was decimated, and he was among the alliance of lazy crumbums voting out the tribe's hard workers in the process. At the merge, Rob was down numbers, despite trying to use bullying tactics (and homophobic rhetoric in his confessionals) to try to stay afloat. He nearly coaxed outsider Kathy into flipping over to his cause, but ultimately he went down swinging. His confrontations with majority-alliance leader John Carroll were some of the most compelling stand-offs of the season.
Voted Out: Corinne Kaplan
This was yet another "fans versus favorites" season where the favorites thoroughly dominated the pre-merge episodes, so when it came time to combine, some of the faves were itching to make a big move. Like Corinne, who so wanted to get vainglorious blowhard Phillip Sheppard out of the game. She lined up her closest ally Malcolm Freberg and a trio of newbies (Michael, Reynold, and Eddie) to consolidate power, but her stubbornness kept her from recognizing the opportunity at hand when Phillip suggested splitting the favorites' votes between Reynold and Eddie. Rather than seeing a split vote as a gift, where her alliance of five would now have a numbers advantage, she pushed back against Phillip's plan and made the fatal mistake of approaching Dawn to join her. When Dawn ratted her out to the other favorites, Corinne's fate was sealed.
Voted Out: Chris Noble
An epic clash of alpha-male egos was in the works for weeks on "Ghost Island," and once the merge happened, there was no avoiding it: Domenick Abbate and Chris Noble were out to get the other before they got got themselves. Wendell Holland tried to broker peace between the two, but after a tense sit-down on the dunes, they each set about marshalling votes against the other. Ultimately, Domenick won out, and in one of the more epic kiss-off votes of all time, Wendell slagged Chris's unfortunate habit of trying to rap around camp: "You're trash. At rapping."
Voted Out: Keith Tollefson
After spending most of the pre-merge being ostracized by his tribe for being the proverbial 98-pound weakling, John Cochran weighed his options and ultimately chose to flip to the opposing alliance, led by Coach Wade and Sophie Clarke, thus breaking the 6-6 deadlock and reaping a whole whirlwind of condemnation from his old tribe. Cochran's flip turned the course of the game and ultimately sealed his own fate, as he was subsequently seen as a flip-flopper, but it stands as an enduring lesson to beware the abuse you heap on the lowest on your totem pole.
Voted Out: Nate Gonzalez
The saga of the Aitu Four on "Cook Islands" is one of the greatest storylines in Survivor history. After a mutiny twist left Yul Kwon, Becky Lee, Ozzy Lusth, and Sundra Oakley at a massive 8-4 disadvantage, the small-but-mighty tribe rattled off four straight challenge wins and entered the merge down only 5-4 in numbers. From there, Yul was able to convince/strong-arm Jonathan Penner into flipping back to the Aitu alliance and voting out Nate, a move that turned the game on its head and put Aitu in the driver's seat for the rest of the season. Yul's deft-but-dominant maneuvering in this episode very likely helped seal his ultimate victory on the season.
Voted Out: Lex Van Den Berghe
The legend of the notorious "Boston" Rob Mariano was birthed in this very merge vote. In the episode prior, a tribe swap had left Amber Birkich (Rob's closest ally and budding romance) adrift on a hostile tribe. Rob was able to pull Lex (his IRL friend and pre-season ally) aside and beg him to save Amber at the expense of one of Lex's own allies. Lex complied, and entered into the merge with the expectation that he and his allies Kathy and Shii Ann would unite with Rob, Amber, and Big Tom to take out the rest of the field. But it was not to be. Rob was happy with the alliance he already had, and with Lex having already delivered on his end of the promise, Rob broke the news that he was going back on his word. A sly, sneaky game move that Lex took as an incredibly personal betrayal, and which set the tone for several further Boston Rob betrayals as the season went on.
Voted Out: Gretchen Cordy
The very first merge episode is still among the biggest gut punches in series history. The line on the initial Survivor season is that the contestants were very much learning the game as they went along. Especially during the pre-merge, there was a lot of talk of voting out the players who were less worthy or capable of surviving on the island and keeping the strong players out of a sense of principle. But all the while, Richard Hatch's Tagi alliance was forming a numbers-above-all strategy, and when they hit the merge, they fully took advantage of the other players' disorganization. A whopping seven out of ten players received votes at the merge tribal council, before the Tagi votes were revealed: all four voted to eliminate Gretchen, perhaps the most respected and unifying figure among the Pagong tribe. It was the smart strategic move, but for the Pagong tribe (and a lot of the viewing audience) it was a terrible shock. In many ways it was the moment the game of Survivor lost its innocence.
Voted Out: Sarah Lacina
The merge episode of this "Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty" season might have seen the most sustained chaos in any Survivor episode ever. The merge coincided with the introduction of a "super-idol" into the game, which was found by the most unstable player, Tony Vlachos. But his instability was nothing compared to Kass McQuillen, who got into a tiff with alliance-mate Sarah Lacina and decided to flip the entire balance of power in the game by hopping to the rival alliance. Two immunity idols were played at tribal council, though neither of them were necessary, and it was Kass's vote that got Sarah sent to the jury and ultimately paved the way for Tony to win the whole season.
Voted Out: J.T. Thomas
The "Heroes vs.Villains" merge episode truly had everything: immunity idol shenanigans, an overconfident and condescending man getting his comeuppance, uncertainty down to the last moments as to who was going home, and a shift in the balance of power toward the season's true strategic mastermind. Leading up to the merge, the Heroes (in particular JT and Rupert Boneham) were certain that the Villains, because they kept voting off men, were in the throes of a dreaded women's alliance. And so JT did what any upstanding chauvinist "hero" would do: he gifted his hidden immunity idol to lone Villain male Russell Hantz, despite never having actually spoken two words to him. Russell and Parvati, the real power behind the Villains at the time, had a good laugh at JT's idiocy and then began plotting his demise. But with a 5-5 balance between the alliances, an idol was only as good as who it would get played on. Enter Parvati, who audaciously played two idols at tribal, neither on herself, ultimately negating the Heroes' votes against Jerri Manthey and sending JT home before he even knew what hit him.
A pair of seasons didn't quite make our top ten but deserve recognition. In its second season, Survivor: Australia's contestants had already wised up to the alliance game, so when the merge came with 5 members of the Kucha tribe and 5 members of the Ogakor tribe, there was no margin for error. And err Jeff Varner did, when he self-eliminated from the immunity challenge for peanut butter and was subsequently voted out via tiebreaker. Fourteen seasons later, on Survivor: Micronesia, reaction-meme queen Eliza Orlins was eliminated after abashedly playing an "immunity idol" provided to her by her dunce of an ally, Jason Siska, even though she knew full well it was just a "fucking stick."
Survivor: Winners at War 's merge episode airs tonight at 8:00 PM ET on CBS.
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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.