Survivor 45's ("earn the") merge episode had dramatic highs and lows, but none bigger than Kaleb's saving himself with the Shot in the Dark. After four-and-a-half long seasons of trying, the long-shot hecto-idol finally worked as advertised, and Kaleb set a record for the most votes voided on a single play in the process. A game-saving home run for Kaleb, a lottery win for the show and for the audience.
It was a well-edited moment, too. As the players erupted in shocked gasps, and Kaleb bounced around the Tribal set like a Golden Retriever, the editors cut back multiple times to poor J., head in hands, clearly painfully aware that Kaleb's salvation spelled her own doom. A perfectly balance of exhilaration and pathos.
Because of the deep improbability of a Shot working in this manner, we're unlikely to ever see it play out this way again. As Rob Cesternino noted after the show, it was likely a game-changing moment from a strategy perspective: in future seasons (that have seen 45, at least) there will always be at least one backup/safety/hinky vote so that a plan B goes forward in the unlikely event a Shot hits again. (People were already doing this on six-person tribes in 44, so it's unclear why it didn't happen here.) Or as Tyson Apostol suggested, this is a great time for Survivor to simply retire the Shot in the Dark, because they're never going to top this.
Side note: I saw this episode at the RHAP Live event at the Brea Improv. I have attended a couple of events before, and they were good, but the highlight was always seeing the live aftershow, featuring past contestants opining on the episode/season, or the pre- and post-show opportunities to connect with fellow fans and/or past contestants. (Or both, like the great reigning SurvivorNZ champ Lisa Holmes, or a guy who looked remarkably like future The Challenge USA comp beast Brandon Donlon.) In the past, watching the episode itself with a huge group of people was often ... meh. Too much noise, hard to see the screen, etc.
This was, in complete contrast, an electric live experience. It was loud to begin with, but the place was absolute pandemonium when Kaleb's Shot in the Dark hit the target. All the jumping around and jaw drops you saw on the show were also going on in the audience. An absolute top-tier collective viewing experience, like the home team winning at a championship sports event. It probably can't be topped, but for anyone going to future such live events, there's always a chance!
Despite all the excitement at the end of the episode, there was still the painful slog through the middle portion, aka "earn the merge." It's still the new era, after all. Danny got the hourglass twist taken away, but all the rest is still here, stinking up the show like five-season-old fish.
Can "earn the merge" ever be salvaged? The flaws are obvious: It steals what was once a treasured milestone mid-game celebration, and replaces it with uncertainty and randomly selected people being in extreme danger. It takes all the fun out of the season's midpoint, and swaps in fear. Or, as Katurah said: "We literally have no idea what's going to happen, *Jeff*. We're terrified out here."
And as we saw immediately after that, a major flaw is that the rock draw, while random, can produce grossly unbalanced teams, making the whole "earn" charade pure fantasy for one of those two groups. Then the audience is stuck watching one hapless team very slowly go through a lot of sweat, mud, and pain, only to eventually end up with what was already obvious from the start: "No food, no buffs, no security."
This season's presentation of it all at least did do a better job of presenting what's likely the overall thought process behind the twist (perhaps by virtue of having more time to do so). Drew was given the opportunity to present the propaganda for keeping the half-merge feast: "Everyone's guard is on the floor. ... Everyone is open to working with one another. We all know we're safe. None of us can be targets!"
I guess that's *sort of* interesting, at least theoretically?
The other half of the equation - the plight of the people who are not safe, and their potential resentment of those who are - also felt more fleshed-out and palpable this time around. This scenario also *might* pay off someday in shaking up an alliance. Although, honestly, it's hard for anyone to get too bent out of shape when it's a random division.
It feels like this particular twist was put into place to avoid the dull, least-feather-ruffling boot decisions that past giant merges have produced. It's usually someone who just wanted to make it a bit further, but didn't really have a lot of allies. That's underwhelming when, after all the anticipation of a huge post-merge strategic battle between the two (or three) big alliances, they elect to keep their powder dry, and choose a common safe target that doesn't shake anything up. One that preserves the power dynamics, one that barely dents the game as a whole. A stalling tactic, as everyone attempts to find their footing in the bigger one-tribe setting. So this random half-tribe division should turn that on its head, right? Right? Well ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What *has* "earn the merge" produced? No-sweat easy boots, for the most part, just like the old system. Sydney (from the tribe that hadn't lost anyone, just like here), Lydia, Elie (from the tribe that had lost the fewest people, just like here), and Josh (least-connected person from the tribe that had lost the fewest people, just like here). Here, Katurah literally threw out Emily's name as a substitute for Kaleb, because "she's a safe vote in the middle, not really connected to anyone." Dee later gives the exact same reasoning for targeting J.: "Voting off J. is not gonna burn bridges between Reba, Belo, and Lulu." Wow, what a Game Changer this twist is!
To be fair, there is some potential value to the half-merge feast discussions, in that by not having everyone from a tribe/alliance present while game talk is going on, there's the risk of someone over-talking - spilling some secret, creating a target, or agreeing to one - that the larger alliance would never have done. But (Game Changer!) we've already seen that, and it was Gabler, and there were literally no repercussions for his targeting Elie, since he spun it as his one big move and almost swept the jury vote in response.
So what could be done better, then? Well, just going back to a normal merge, for one. That would be fun! And of course, loose lips happened anyway back when it was a giant group of people eating at a big table and there was lots of wine. It was already working, so it's not at all clear why it needed fixing.
But obviously going back to a regular merge is not going to happen, because Jeff Probst is never wrong, even after an NFL player yells at him for somehow fucking up the entire concept of competition. (Changes were quietly made two seasons later, probably a coincidence.) So let's try a baby step instead: How about ditching the rock draw?
Rock draws are lazy. Here, they're intended to create chaos while keeping production's hands clean, because they're "random." But they can also result in boring, imbalanced teams. So if you *must* have two teams, the solution is simple: do a schoolyard pick (after drawing rocks for captains - look, you can still do your precious rock draw!). A schoolyard pick increases the odds the challenge teams will be more balanced. That makes the outcome less predictable, raising the stakes and the strategic decisions considerably.
Do the captains try to pick their main allies, or the strongest team possible? Do you really want all your allies on one team? What if that team loses, and then you're all screwed, collectively, completely at the mercy of the opposing alliance(s)? Conversely, what if as captain you decide against picking an ally? Are they more pissed at you for not picking them? What if their team then loses, and they're vulnerable?
I dunno, it just seems like picking teams replaces a completely random event that a player can't do much about with actual strategic decision-making, makes the challenge more exciting, and increases the odds that the whole "earn" thing drives allies apart. It feels like that should be ... preferable? But what do I know, I just watch the show.
That's ... it?
The contrast between this episode's two Beware idols could not have been more stark. In the waning minutes at Lulu camp, Bruce finds the first Beware Idol package/clue, which directs him exactly to where a fully powered idol is buried. Meanwhile, poor Austin still has to go through more vote-sacrifice shenanigans for an idol he found days ago. It's understandable that a rehidden idol at Lulu needed to have fewer steps to dig it up, but there really wasn't much "Beware" to it. When Bruce found it, you could see Kaleb secretly grinning, probably thinking about Sabiyah's tribulations, as Bruce announces his intent to open it anyway. But there was no real payoff there.
I get it, it was merge day, they needed some task that was achievable in a short amount of time. (Which suggests perhaps there was a different package there post-swap, which was later swapped out for this easier set of tasks, and perhaps a change was even made once per boot cycle?) And it's nice for Bruce to have some power, sure. It just doesn't seem very fair in comparison to what everyone else (Austin, Sabiyah) went through that his idol is fully powered and good until Final 5 from the second he finds it.
Sabiyah and Austin both had additional layers of complicated choices AFTER they finally retrieved their idol. How did Bruce slip completely off that hook with an alleged "beware" idol? Sabiyah had to make a snap decision in the voting booth to extend her idol. Bruce had two full days to do that with his idol, but never even had to make a decision.
A whopping four of the five people at Lulu had never voted (including Bruce, who was on his second season!). So wouldn't it have been an interesting dilemma to see if one of them would elect to give up that very first opportunity in exchange for a more-powerful idol? (To the extent that's interesting, which admittedly isn't all that much.)
Would I feel better about this if it had been Kaleb who found it? Yeah, maybe, although (1) Kaleb felt (somewhat inaccurately) like he had built good bonds with the old Belos, and (2) knowing what Sabiyah went through, it seems unlikely Kaleb would have opened the initial package, knowing how close the merge must be. More likely, he would have handed it off to Jake or Bruce or Kellie, just as Brandon did to Sabiyah.
Either way, though, it's hard to overlook the disparity in degree of difficulty. It's hard to overlook that after all the rigamarole Austin and Sabiyah went through to actually find their idols in the first place, they ended up with one half as powerful as the one Gabler got on Day 2 for shoving his hand in a bag. (His was good for two Tribals, theirs were good for one, if no further action was taken.) In contrast, Bruce's was a fully powered idol, and he was told exactly where it was.
Having said all that, if everyone else's idols had just been complicated to retrieve, but fully powered when found, that's an entertaining overall structure for idol finding. So maybe I'm just looking at this wrong. Perhaps production figured out mid-season that the vote-sacrificing part wasn't all that fun, and Bruce's lite-search/full-power idol represents an evolutionary step in the format. I'll take that as a win.
The butterfly problem
Clearly, Kaleb's natural abilities at being personable and connecting with people ironically worked against him in the short term here. But a lot of this feels like leftover stigma from the pre-game, before people actually met him. When Kendra was gunning for him at the half-merge feast, she said she'd had her eye on him "from the beginning."
From the pre-game interviews, it sounded like Kaleb was overplaying pretty hard at pre-game Ponderosa, before the players could talk to each other: smiling and nodding at everyone, which caused several people (including Kendra) to feel sketchy about him. Kendra had spent a grand total of one day in camp with Kaleb by the half-merge feast, so he hadn't had a chance to change that impression, although with Bruce sounding the alarms to anyone who'll listen, there's a huge risk of that fear quickly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy/ consensus opinion, like "David Wright is going to win if he gets to the end" in MvGX.
Kaleb does still have several people in his corner, though: Emily, Katurah, and Jake all seem to legitimately want to work with him. After he was saved by his SitD, he had great interactions with Sifu, as well. You can see the beginnings of a cross-tribal alliance of the outsiders maybe starting to form, if he can just get a few more days to work with people. Next week's split Tribals won't do him any favors, though. Fingers crossed for more miracles.
That is *not* an equalizer - Originally marketed as a way for kids to play at home, the "game within the game" was a bonus incidental pause-button/screen-grab "puzzle" (rebus) that was much ballyhooed as the New Era dawned. It was quickly done away with, because what kind of idiot (other than someone with a Survivor-related website) pauses to stare at the screen and/or takes screencaps during Survivor? But here it was, back again, and now an integral part of an actual challenge, in all its elementary-school splendor, not making the slightest attempt to let the underpowered red team catch up. (Despite PropaganDrew explicitly saying before the challenge, "puzzles in Survivor are the great equalizer.") It's an 11-piece puzzle that serves as the answer key for a four-word puzzle. "Shain't" it ain't.
A bit rough on rewatch - When Reba hears about the merge, J.Maya is the most excited - she wants to do a welcome ceremony on the beach, she makes a big "WELCOME" sign in the sand, and she says "Making it to the stage of the game is a huge triumph for me." Knowing how it all ends up 90 minutes later, a little heartbreaking.
An archaic way of looking at the game, indeed - Bruce's strategy of hardcore "Belo strong" enforcement and not talking to the enemy already didn't work when Boston Rob tried it post-swap in Winners at War. Did Bruce watch any seasons after that? (Fair enough if he didn't want to finish 44, but any of 41-43 will do.) The "earn the merge" bullshit splits you into random teams. So does next week's split-squad "Get a Grip" individual IC. How on earth does he expect to survive those obstacles if he's never talked to the other people in the game? (Also, he talked to Emily multiple times, and she was never on Belo.)
Oops, I guess I ripped my pants again! - It was pretty funny the first time around, but the repetition of Austin's "I'm getting revenge for my sandwich" bit in confessionals is starting to grate, just a tad. On the one hand, it made absolute sense for Austin to target J. here, and using the amulet/sandwich thing as the reasoning with his fellow Rebas was a strong sales pitch for getting votes on board to do it. And it will also be perfectly logical (as Austin predicted) when Kellie and Austin target each other over the amulets again next week. On the other hand: stop, stop, the "sandwich" horse is already dead.