It's exhausting writing about new-era Survivor week to week. You want to be positive and offer constructive criticism, but most of the time, the flaws are just as obvious as they were the second or third time through the format, and the finished product is inferior to what it would have been in the "old era" times. Still, you'll occasionally have a week like Episode 5, where a medevac derailed some of production's time-filling exercises, and a pleasantly character-focused episode emerges, one that actually shone a spotlight on the players and the game they're collectively playing, even if only briefly. But then, just as it seems like green shoots of optimism are emerging, it will end up sandwiched between two episodes like Ep4 and this week's "merge-atory" Ep6, where time with the players is somewhat (this week) or mostly (Ep4) lost to churning through completely expected, rigidly-scheduled events.
These events are primarily changes to the structure of the show that first appeared in Survivor 41, and were mostly received as "eh, okay" at time, because they were brand-new experiments, and also because they were overshadowed in comparison by really bad ideas (the hourglass) that have thankfully disappeared. But now, four seasons in, the experiment has long since ended, and they're still here, like houseguests on the third or fourth week of a visit you assumed was only going to be one.
Is "merge-atory" terrible? No. It's fine. It's a slightly improved version of the S14: Fiji merge twist. It has some marginal benefits, like focusing the players' attention on a smaller subset of eligible boots. But it's also inferior in almost every other way to the dependably celebratory milestone of a normal merge - a feast, old tribemates being reunited, individual immunity, lots of scheming. So why is it still here?
It's here because despite the name, things almost never change in the "new" era. The message is: Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to [insert new-era game structure], get used to it, pal. This is how Survivor works now. We can't possibly go back to two tribes, a standard swap, and a normal merge, because ... reasons. Which is silly, because merge-atory has a number of drawbacks, which have become clear with repeated use, such as:
(1) *Randomly* limiting the pool of potential boots - if you must have the ridiculous "earn the merge" concept, where only half the people living on one beach gets buffs and food, why not at least have the Ep6 IC be schoolyard pick, instead of a rock draw? Having a schoolyard pick exposes who's viewed as challenge threats, who's seen as expendable, and reveals potential alliances, all good things for the merge. A rock draw just gives everyone a rock.
Obviously, a potential flaw is the majority tribe(s) could conspire to throw the IC by picking a strong team and a team of targetable players, but that still is the players doing something on their own, rather than production forcing randomness. Then again, this gaming of the system would only happen after the players have seen it play out once, which, if instituted in 45, would not happen until 47. And then they still have to follow through and actually do this. And it could still not work as planned, because you draw rocks for captains.
(2) Pointless delay in the alleged "faster new game" - As Ryan Kaiser astutely pointed out this week, the not-merged contestants have to wait a full day to see who's immune after the IC before they can really come up with a plan. That means all merge strategy is basically crammed into the few hours between when the feast people return to camp and Tribal. Danny even said as much to Yam Yam when the IC-losing men were discussing (or not, in Danny's case) possible names after the IC.
In a 26-day game, wasting a full day-and-a-half of strategic time at the most critical point in the game for long-term strategy is production shooting itself in the foot. Sure, the contestants could start building relationships in the interim, but how much can they really trust people they've barely known for 24 hours, people they've never voted with or against? They're almost always just going to go with their original tribemates (who they've been with for almost two weeks), and everyone will pick an easy, non-feather-ruffling consensus target, exactly as we saw here. It's not terribly exciting or entertaining. The poor editors had to labor to make the kerfuffle about who would be the decoy/plan B target seem meaningful, when the entire audience was well aware it wasn't, since both people holding valid idols wanted Josh out.
Still, the contestants made it seem plausible that they were still maxed out by this training-wheels version of a big merge vote. Matt gamely described the "matrix of relationships" as massive in his "Survivor with a capital S" title quote, but it's hard not to notice that same matrix would be geometrically more complex with five more names being eligible to write on parchment. Given that the cast only had a few hours to scheme and plot, though, maybe the smaller pool is for the best ... until we get back to a normal merge.
(3) Story threads blink out or just have to pause for a while: Coming into this not-merge, there were a number of interesting long-term storylines that seemed likely to have a big impact on this episode. By and large, they didn't, all because "earn the merge" made them irrelevant. Here are some of the narratives the half-merge either paused or gave an unceremonious end to:
(1) Matt's missing vote: He fretted about this in confessional, but then he ended up on the winning team in the IC, and it was a predictably lopsided consensus majority vote, so ... in the end, Matt was totally safe, and nobody was any the wiser he'd lost a second vote. He'll be fully powered from now on.
(2) Matt's fake idol: Again, poor Matt also fell for Danny's placement of the key and the Officially Sanctioned Soka Fake Idol in the birdcage. But since he was safe, there was no chance of him using it here. (That's probably for the best, just a brief pause in the foreboding aura of future doom.)
(3) Jaime's fake idol(s): Her pre-merge idol expired this episode, and could now be used as a fake. But she also has the actual fake one Matthew made (and helped her find), as a flashback (via Carson) reminded us. But Jaime, like Matt, was on the winning team, so she's not going to waste a fake she thinks is real on this vote.
(4) Are Carolyn and Yam Yam still together? We sort of had confirmation that they are, verbally at least. They also reunited with Carson at night and gained an alliance name (in Carson's head, at least). But Carolyn was safe, Yam Yam wasn't. Carolyn voted for Kane, for some reason (and was audibly surprised at a third vote for Yam Yam). Yam Yam voted for Josh. Were they actually on the same page, working together? Why would Carolyn be the sole vote against Carson's other ally, when they need numbers? None of this was explained. Oh well.
Ideally, you get around all these problems by just doing a normal merge, stealing a day from one of the pre-merge episodes, and having a full, regular 3-day merge episode where everyone (except one, maybe two) is eligible to be voted against. Or you can keep doing whatever half-assed, self-defeating thing production thinks it's pulling off here. You know, whatevs. This is fine.
Who can still win this game?
Another problem with the new-era format - mostly due to it always having three small tribes in the pre-merge - is that apart from Carolyn and Yam Yam, and maybe Carson, we've barely met most of the people on the other two tribes. Ratu had a chaotic, single-vote-boot first Tribal. Soka had a sad, pile-the-votes-on-Claire consensus Tribal. That's it, that's all we got. We don't really know how well any of these people really get along with each other. With three tribes, the editors are often forced to ignore tribes that are always winning, because there's only so much time in an episode, and you have to show the thinking and plotting that leads to each week's boot. This happened to some extent in Survivor 41, where Luvu was safe until the merge, and we really only checked in for enjoyable Naseer-related content, leaving eventual winner Erika pre-merge purpled.
Here, we're at the merge, halfway through the season, and we still mostly only have one- or two-word outlines of the other players. On Soka, Matt and Frannie are collectively the nerd showmance, Danny is the breathing bro, and Heidi is the person you have to identify by the words in the bottom third. On Ratu, Brandon is the serious bro, Kane is the on-the-outs nerd, and Lauren is *their* person you have to identify by the chyron (who has an extra vote, which has had slightly more screentime than she has). Matthew was their main character, but he's now gone.
Carson and Jaime are the two (left) who were swapped. Carson seems to want to work with Carolyn and Yam Yam, so as the audience, we're predisposed to like him, since they're the only main characters left, and everyone viewing loves them. Jaime doesn't seem all that inclined to do the same, but she has an imaginary magic wand that makes everything turn out in her favor, and has a vast amount of knowledge about Ratu and Soka, apart from the fact that her idol is fake, which is obviously not going to go her way. (The show is really hanging poor Jaime out to dry with this, and vaguely framing her as anti-Tika seems a little unfair, but I guess the ends justify the means, right?)
So anyway, one of the truisms of the new era is that the winner comes from the tribe that attended Tribal the fewest times in the pre-merge. As noted last week, that's everyone but Carolyn and Yam Yam. Maybe this season breaks the trend? (If it's an all-original Tika final three made up of the newly annointed "Three Stooges," which seems plausible, Carson would have the edge over Carolyn and Yam Yam, and the trend continues.)
Of the remaining players, we can probably cross out the two future fake idol victims, Matt and Jaime. Once we start having individual challenges (we're more than halfway through the season, they should start any day now, maybe), Brandon and Danny will start to become targets. It's not out of the question that thus-far-invisible Heidi or Lauren could win, since Erika did so with about the same pre-merge content, but it still seems unlikely. That leaves Carson, Frannie, and the already-targeted/-expendable Kane. The first two seem like solid contenders, given what little we know about them. But Kane would extend the Canadian winning streak in the new era. Hmm.
Wait, could this be a season where a nerd wins? Would famously pro-bro Jeff Probst be trumpeting how much fun a season is where that happens? Maybe Danny or Brandon has a better shot than it appears, then. Danny does have an idol after all.
Anyway, we're finally into the phase of the game where the overall narrative of the endgame begins to take shape, and everyone still in the game theoretically has a shot at the million. It will be interesting to see how the various alliances start to shake out, what pre-merge cross-tribal chatter ends up being important, how the fake idols play out, and all that.
Or at least it will be once we get past whatever next week's godawful "you will have no say in who leaves" twist ends up being. But again, we're trying to be positive: Whatever. This is fine. We'll get to an actual game where the players define the rules of who stays and who goes eventually. Hopefully.
You can't teach height, once again: Jeff Probst seemed mystified that, to a person, the tall people in the IC - Frannie, Matt, Carolyn - all did really well at running up the high ramp and grabbing the cargo net. And then of course some of the shorter people (Yam Yam, Jaime) struggled on the same obstacle. I mean, what are the odds that tall people could reach something high up? Yes, even the women, Jeff! Wow, it's miraculous! (This is not a US-only thing. See also Shaun Hampson in SurvivorAU: HvV.)
Speaking of height: If it looked like the players were really struggling with getting the giant balls over the barrier obstacles, that's because the challenge department made them *much* higher than they were back in 42. Before it was one set of barrel-like obstacles. Now it's a pile two barrels high, *plus* a wooden cross-bar above that. (See below.) 42 also had a series of berms to cross, but if you had momentum from the first one, the ball rolled most of the way up the second on its own.
I had one of those growing up: Forget the chess board, which seems to still randomly have its pieces moving around. Please let the eventual voting booth idol be the flail (chain mace), because that would be way more awesome (and hilarious) for someone to bring back to their seat after voting.
Heh: Just noticed that the picture at the top is one of the only times we've seen Matt and Frannie apart, and ironically, they're separated by two pairs of people hugging each other.