I confess. When I started writing about the first season of Survivor a few weeks back, I came to the show as someone interested in the origins of the reality genre, though not as a huge fan of this show in particular. This past summer, I revisited the first season of The Real World, a landmark series that is indelibly burned into my memory after umpteen repeat viewings over the years on MTV. I adored the early seasons of that show, so the exercise felt like visiting old friends. Re-watching Survivor has become just as enjoyable to me for the opposite reason. I was late to join the Survivor bandwagon back in the heady days of 2000, and so I’m able to watch the show with relatively fresh eyes—albeit ones that are well-accustomed to the conventions of reality television.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I friggin’ loved everything about “The Merger.” Let the record state: This is the week that Meredith Blake became not just a Survivor observer, but a Survivor junkie. In weeks past, the first act of the show is where Survivor sets the scene, establishing the mood among each tribe as they brace themselves for yet another round of challenges. But this week, with the merger looming, there’s an exhilarating uncertainty in the air. Jeff Probst explains the situation as only Jeff Probst can: “There are many questions to be answered. Where will they live? What will this new tribe call themselves? What kind of world will they now create?” He sounds like he’s narrating a film about a band of humans trying to rebuild society after the apocalypse, and not a reality show about people competing for a million bucks. The guy is nothing if not deeply committed to bullshit.
Probst explains that Sean and Jenna have been picked to be ambassadors for their respective teams. Escorted by a member of the opposite tribe, they’ll each travel to the other tribe’s camp and size it up. (Once again, I found myself curious to know just how far apart the respective camps really are.) Kelly leads Jenna to Tagi’s outpost, and gives her the scoop on her teammates. “Rich is a sweetheart. He’s naked a lot,” she says, which seems half accurate. Once Jenna gets to Tagi’s comparatively luxurious camp, which has distinct areas for cooking, lounging, and sleeping, she can’t quite contain her enthusiasm. “You guys are so organized, so much more than ours!” she gushes. Way to play it cool, Jenna. While she’s feasting on a bowl of grilled ray, Sean and his tour guide Greg are on the other end (or wherever) of the island, desperately sucking on coconut rinds for sustenance. “A lot of work for a little sugar,” Sean says. The editing is hilariously effective.
“But why Sean and Jenna? They’re hardly the leader of their tribes,” I found myself wondering. This question was quickly followed by, “Oh, riiiiiight. I get it.” With Sean gone, the remaining Tagi members feel free to discuss the voting alliance. We learn that Rudy has finally decided to join Susan, Richard, and Kelly. “I seen the light, “ he declares. “If you want to win the money you got to get a little dirty.” Richard calls Sean and Gretchen “stupid” for their moral opposition to joining an alliance. “I consider myself extremely ethical and moral and this has absolutely nothing to do with that,” he says. He’s right and everything, but while he’s talking, I mostly find myself distracted by his mottled, sun-damaged skin (see above for the horrifying evidence). Dear Richard: It’s not a sign of weakness to protect yourself from melanoma. Wear a hat. Love, Your Mother.
But there’s another reason that Sean and Jenna were picked—by the producers, that is—as their tribe ambassadors: because they’re young, single, and attractive. Last week’s episode was fun because it felt like an episode of The Real World: Borneo. “The Merger” is even more enjoyable because, for a while there, it turned into Blind Date. When Jenna and Sean show up at the sand spit for their summit, there’s a table for two, overflowing with a lobster feast. Probst outlines their incredibly important task: they need to pick a new name for the tribe, paint a new flag, and decide where the merged tribe will be living. Once again, Probst’s commitment to the B.S. is impressive. It’s clear the summit is actually a big ruse, and the producers were in fact hoping for a “merger” of another kind (hey-o!). Not to put too fine a point on it, they have also placed two luxurious beds a few feet from the dinner table. Hell, it’s so obvious even Sean picks up on it. They get nice and drunk, consuming two bottles of wine a piece (can you imagine the horror of being hungover on a desert island?), but it’s not meant to be.
The next day, the other tribe members are overcome with anticipation. Gretchen, the Tracy Flick of Pulau Tiga, practically short-circuits. Eventually, Jenna arrives at the Pagong settlement and tells everyone they have five minutes to gather their belongings, along with three items belonging to the tribe. She also announces the merged tribe’s name, “Rattana.” Jenna picked the name, inspired by the rattan that grows on the island. Sean suggested adding an “a,” to “give it a little flare, a little pizzazz.” All I can think of is furniture.
So, like the settlers of Roanoke, the members of Tagi flee their homes in a mad hurry, leaving their belongings behind. I can’t blame them for leaving. The place looks like a dump, and there’s no shade anywhere but the jungle. Once they arrive at Tagi’s end of the island, it feels like the beginning of another show. Everyone sizes each other up all over again. Greg describes his impressions “a boy named Sue,” a.k.a. Susan, whom he finds “strong, loud, with an accent that will drive you up the wall.” (You’re not the only one, Greg.) Colleen, her senses perhaps weakened by hunger, thinks Sean is smart. Susan thinks he’s dumb. (Takes one to know one, maybe?) Everybody likes Gervase, especially Gervase. “People tell me I’m a charmer, a smooth-talker,” he says. He and Richard play cards while the women refurbish the shelter. Typical! Amirite ladies?
Rattana’s first night together starts out giddily, like a desert-island sleepover party. Gathered ‘round the campfire, everyone shares tales of past debauchery. As Greg puts it, “This new group is like a banquet of stories.” Sean humblebrags about turning down a threesome opportunity and Gretchen reminisces about the time she drank a fifth of whiskey at the age of 14, but I’m most intrigued by Jenna’s mysterious story about a Suzuki Sidekick. I only wish we’d gotten to hear the whole thing. Rudy, however, does not feel this way. He’s disgusted by all the sex talk, and decides to go to sleep. Eventually everyone else does too, but it’s a restless night. Rudy, who’s pissed that he has to share his sleeping quarters with a bunch of young, attractive women, wakes everyone up on his way “to the head,” and their shelter isn’t exactly waterproof. The tribe wakes up grumpy, tired, and bug-eaten—a foreshadowing of the tension to come.
It’s time for the immunity challenge. The castaways assemble at Snake Island, where they’ll take part in a relatively low-concept breath-holding competition. The three contestants who hold their breath the longest will then compete in an underwater race. The winner will be awarded with an “immunity talisman,” and the immunity idol will go into “the archives,” Probst tells us. (I know you were worried.) The results of the breath-holding are a little surprising. Tough-girl Kelly, of all people, is the first person to give up, followed in short order by the rest of the women. Rudy and Richard hang on for an impressive amount of time, then Greg and Sean. But it’s Gervase, the guy who can’t run more than 25 yards without having an asthma attack and says he can’t swim, who holds on the longest—for 2 minutes and 9 seconds, to be exact. David Blaine, eat your heart out. In the finals round, Gervase doesn’t fare as well, giving up a few seconds into the race. Greg wins by a nose, almost losing his shorts in the process. He’s awarded the immunity talisman, which he rocks with pride. (Speaking of “pride,” how much do you want to bet they had to call it a “talisman” rather than a “necklace,” just so that Rudy wouldn’t think of it as cross-dressing.)
There’s more uncertainty than ever as Rattana mulls over their looming tribal council. Greg thinks it’ll be “boring” if people get voted off because they’re considered threatening, and Jenna agrees. The real mystery going into tribal council is who the alliance will vote for. Will it be Sean the doofus? Or maybe Jenna the chatterbox? It’s anyone’s guess. Around the fire, Probst artfully brings up the subject of the alliance once again, asking “is it too soon to think voting has shifted?” The answer, of course, is no. Most of the tribe still votes according to their own principles or, in the case of Sean, their whims. He enacts a stunningly stupid alphabetical strategy, voting for Colleen. Gretchen casts her ballot for Rudy, “the person I respect the most but least want to play the game against,” while Colleen and Jenna take the opposite tack, voting for people they don’t like (Richard and Gervase, respectively).
The non-alliance votes seem evenly distributed, so when Probst starts counting the ballots, the tension is extraordinary. Then, as Gretchen’s name comes up four times in a row, the ruthless efficiency of the alliance becomes clear. Gretchen is stunned by the results, laughing in that way people do when they’re actually really mad. The elimination of Gretchen, one of the hardiest and most disciplined players on the island, represents a kind of tipping point in the show, the moment at which Survivor became a game of strategy rather than endurance. Things are about to get nasty, and I can’t wait.
- During the alliance conversations, Kelly once again reminds everyone she didn’t come here to make friends. Has Kelly ever officially been credited with coining this reality show cliché?
- I’m also really interested in knowing how, before the merger, each tribe got intelligence on the other—i.e. how does Richard know that Gretchen was opposed to an alliance? There must have been some interesting conversations during the challenges, or maybe the producers were leaking information.
- Over dinner, Sean explains the concept of the bases to Jenna: first base is kissing, second base is boobs, and so on. Jenna says she didn’t know about the bases, only “home plate.” Insert your own sex tape joke here.
- Greg tries to go fishing, but comes back with one measly, inedible urchin. Richard says that it’s only good for him if Greg tells everyone how hard it is to catch fish. The guy is a master manipulator.
- Minor but hilariously telling detail: Probst tells Jenna and Sean that they need to write down their new tribe name in a parchment book held together with pins.
- Gotta love the handmade “Rowdy Rudy’s Diner” sign in the kitchen.
- In his interview, Greg gets distracted by the scenery: “Woah, cool. Flying fish!”