Survivor 41 recap: Purge the merge
"Pssst! Hey, all. Jeff Probst here. Time to bring you in on another big twist. All right, Dalton is about to start his recap. It's his sixth recap of the season. He's been a big fan of the cast and even got choked up watching Luvu rally around Heather at the reward challenge. But he also has worried about there being too many idols and advantages because, well, that's what Dalton does. It's kind of annoying actually. It's like, dude, broken record much? Anyway, what Dalton doesn't know is that when this recap ends, he's going to believe he's safe to start prepping for an exit interview for whoever is voted out. But nobody is getting voted out! So the joke's on him! Anyway…"
Wait, what do you mean nobody is getting voted out, Jeff?
"Ohhhhhhhh… well, this is weird. I was talking directly to your readers and didn't think you could hear me."
Of course I could hear you! I'm right here. The same way those contestants were practically all up in your grill when you were telling cameraman extraordinaire Scott Duncan all about the big twist in this week's episode. That's probably why your voice has been so hoarse this season — from the excessive amount of faux-whispering going down.
"Hmmm… okay, well I guess at this point you have to decide whether to protect your recap or to risk your recap."
What?! That doesn't even make any sense! Dammit, this is my worst recap ever, and that includes the time I wrote an entire recap as Jimmy T from Nicaragua.
"I'm not gonna lie. It's not good. But it must be nice to be alone with your thoughts. And to make fire on your own."
Again, what in the Sam Hill are you talking about, Jeff?
"What I'm talking about is this: Fear not, pathetic reality TV show recapper. For today is your lucky day… especially since TV recappers aren't exactly in the habit of getting lucky, am I right? HEY-YO!"
That was uncalled for, Jeff. Accurate, yet uncalled for.
"Couldn't resist. Too easy. Anyway, what I mean is, what if I offered you an opportunity to go back in time and change history? Hidden here under my dope-ass orange-billed baseball hat is an hourglass. If you would like to completely reverse the outcome of your recap and start over, all you have to do is take this random hammer I also happen to be carrying around and smash the hourglass. Now, before you make your decision, take some time to really think it through…"
Okay, let's pretend that entire thing never happened. Yet with all that said, allow me to now actually begin my Survivor 41 episode 6 recap by admitting something: I really liked the Probst Ted Talk to viewers this week. It was super cool seeing him talking to us right as the players were walking in right behind him! Although I also have to admit something else: It stressed me out in a major way. I was like, "Bro! They're right there! Hurry up! They're gonna bust you!" Anyway, I'm not sure all those talking-directly-to-camera bits have worked this season, but this one totally did for me. It got me jacked up, just like Probst's "welcome to the season" did back in the premiere.
But you didn't come here for me to dissect Jeff's camera asides. You came for the blistering hot take on all the radical merge twists piled upon merge twists — piled so high as to match the 20 mattresses on top of the one pea laid down by Hans Christian Andersen. But you are about to be disappointed. You will get neither a simple LOVED IT nor LOATHED IT reaction in these here digital pages. There are certain aspects about it I really liked. And there are other aspects I really didn't. Yes! Nuance! It exists!
Before we make our pros-and-cons list, let's set up exactly what happened in case you either missed the episode or could not keep up with the 874 elements of the twist. Instead of a regular merge, the show put five players on a blue team (Danny, Deshawn, Sydney, Ricard, Evvie) and five players on a yellow team (Xander, Tiffany, Liana, Shan, and Heather) and two players on no team (Naseer and Erika). The team who won the challenge (Blue) automatically made the merge, and the team who didn't (Yellow) would have to compete for individual immunity and then vote someone out before said merge happened. Also, the team who won (again, Blue) then selected one person who sat out the challenge to join them at the feast with a FastPass to the merge (congrats, Naseer!), and then had to send the other person to Exile Island for two nights (sorry, Erika).
Ah, but as the host warned us in his secret intro, Erika was actually given a massive power: the power to completely flip everything so that she as well as those who lost the challenge were all safe and on to the merge, while those who won the challenge (and Naseer) now had to compete for individual immunity with one of them being voted out before the official merge.
So, let's start with what I like about this reimagining, which is so massive it out-reimagines every single soulless Disney cartoon-turned-into-live-action-movie money grab. Because there are things to like. Let's begin with this: I love messing with the merge. I loved it back in season 5 with the infamous fake merge on Survivor: Thailand, and I love it here. This is a perfect place to screw with players who are kind of on cruise control in assuming they know the mechanics of what's about to happen at this point in the game. So I fully support coming up with the idea of not making the merge so automatic and upending contestant expectations. Well done.
Which brings us to the application of the idea. I also really dig the first part of that application. Let's take out the hourglass element for the time being. The idea of having a team challenge with the winning team going straight to the merge and the losers then having to battle it out in an individual contest for immunity and then watch one of them get voted out is a nifty twist that is completely in the spirit of the game, yet also diabolically delicious. Again, well done.
The one tweak I would have made to that formula is to not have redivided the players into teams. I would have had Luvu and Yase stay as is, and had Shan and Ricard merge with Yase to even up the tribe numbers. Having Luvu and Yase/Ua still competing against each other with the winners gaining immediate merge access would have raised the stakes and played out dramatically better than two new randomly reshuffled team groupings. But that is me merely tweaking and improving on what I think is already a cool idea in having players battle just to make the merge.
Of course, that Yase/Ua tribe combo platter would have eliminated the gray rock sit-out element that later led to the hourglass… which is completely intentional on my part. Because now we get to the part I did not like: giving Erika the power to completely reverse the outcome of the challenge. I don't like it for two reasons. Allow me to work backwards to explain as we reverse-engineer this. The episode ended on a cliffhanger. Jeff Probst even told us in our little fireside chat before the challenge that it would end in a cliffhanger and that nobody would be voted out. Fine. I'm not going to sit here and rail against the show for not booting anyone like one of those lame non-elimination legs of The Amazing Race. That actually didn't bug me. I thought it might, but it didn't. However, while the episode ended on the cliffhanger of Erika's decision, it was really no cliffhanger at all because why would the person clearly deemed on the outs and at risk of being voted out next not change the result and give herself immunity?
It's not the fact that the cliffhanger is not really a cliffhanger that I object to — it is what that fact illustrates: that the team that just fought so hard to win a challenge they were told would give them safety to the merge were actually competing to lose. Think of it this way: Survivor producers are smart. They work through every scenario before they put something into motion. What do you think the chances are that anyone who ended up on Exile Island and was therefore in danger of going home and did not have two days to bond with their tribemates doing the voting would not smash the hourglass and just leave the game as it was? Extremely low, right? So the producers knew when that challenge started that the winners of it were actually the losers. So from a strictly game perspective, the twist is pretty much indefensible. You are straight up punishing people for winning when you told them winning was what they wanted to do.
The counterargument would be the producers are not concerned with "fair." They care about making good television. As they should be. That's their job — not to make the best game on Earth, but rather the best TV show on Earth. So if the drama of the twist is deemed greater than the drama of a straight-up competition with no advantages or bells or whistles, they will take the former over the latter 10 out of 10 times, and I totally get that. I may not like it, but I get it. However, I would argue that Erika's decision in this case is so obvious that making us wait a week to see the obvious play out is not worth undoing all the events of your entire last episode.
Even if Erika surprises us and does not smash the hourglass, it still feels like one degree of producer interference too far. Had they just let the players play it out and lived and died with the consequences, I think that's something everyone would have loved to see play out. I'll say what I have been saying all season: This is a great cast. Trust them to create enough drama on their own. Trust the format of the show. Come up with twists to keep people on their toes, but not gimmicks that are borderline nonsensical just for shock value.
So yeah, there's my take on the big twist. I love that they decided to spice up the merge process. I just would have turned down the overall heat a bit. Punishing people for winning something is going a bit too far for my taste. But that's just my taste. Always keep that in mind when reading these stupid diatribes. I am not speaking for Survivor Nation. No one does. We all have different takes on everything — from best and worst seasons, to favorite players, to challenges and twists. This is but one person's opinion. I look forward to reading yours in the comments section. Oh, and I even got Jeff Probst to give us some insight as to the origins of the idea, so make sure to check out my Q&A with the host for some more intel on the big merge purge. Okay, a few other quick things from the episode.
* How amazing was that scene between Shan and Ricard that kicked off the episode? Such a fascinating dynamic between those two. And the scene here perfectly illustrated why I argued last week that Shan should have voted Ricard out instead of Genie. Shan said she couldn't trust Ricard. Ricard said it was "f---ed up" that Shan came up to him five minutes before Tribal asking for her extra vote back. Shan then said it was bothersome he wouldn't give it back. Ricard then countered that Shan wanted all the power. Shan pointed out that she took all the risk. If it sounds like I am just reciting the entire back-and-forth blow by blow, it's because I was riveted and hanging on their every word. Ricard eventually handed the advantage back, and while the duo seems likely to stick together in at least the short term because they need each other, I can't wait to see how it all plays out.
* I can't quite make out what is going on with the Luvu folks. They talked right before the fake merge about all sticking together for at least the first few votes, but then all of them appeared ready to cut Erika after she was sent to Exile Island. But why? If Danny is so concerned with getting a woman out (and judging by how Evvie is playing, he probably should be), why not take out a woman from Yase or Ua? Does he not realize that if they take out one of their own in Erika, and then Yase and Ua team up, that Luvu are the ones down in numbers? Math for the win! Or, perhaps in this case, the loss.
* When Jeff Probst was talking directly to us before the challenge and announced that "This one may ruffle some feathers," please tell me I was not the only old-school fan who asked, "Or is it rustle?"
* I love, love, love how into it Probst is this season while calling challenges. No wonder the dude's voice has been so hoarse. Homeboy looks like he is about to pop a vein as he screams stuff like "PUSH THAT BALL!" and "NO, QUIT! THAT'S IT!" And his play-by-play that "This gives new meaning to one of my favorite phrases: You've got to dig deep!" was the icing on the cake. I have said it before and will say it again: Probst is the best host on planet Earth, and when he is as invested as he is in this season, it is a joy to watch. Annoying armchair Thursday morning quarterbacks like myself who think we have all the answers may quibble with creative decisions here and there, but when it comes to calling the action at either a challenge or Tribal Council, no one calls it better than Probst.
* I don't know how or why Danny keeps calling it "Paper, Rock, Scissors" instead of "Rock, Paper, Scissors," but I shall from here on out only and exclusively refer to the game as "Scissors, Paper, Rock" just to throw even more confusion onto the fire. Oh, and Naseer…. Love you, bro. But chill out on the super celebration when picked for the merge feast while you are literally standing right next to Erika. Salt in the wound, my man.
* Very surprised by Shan's sloppy play of asking Liana right in front of Tiffany if she got the advantage. Shan's smarter than that, so I'll chalk it up to exhaustion and/or malnutrition. Also, props to Xander for coming up with the phrase "mergeatory." I wonder if Liana can use her Knowledge Is Power advantage to steal that line from him.
* Do we have another Cookout forming? For those who actually have a semblance of taste and pride and do not subject themselves to the shame of watching multiple hours a week of the trashtastic Big Brother like I do, the six Black contestants on that show this summer all formed an alliance and trounced the competition, ousting everyone else and making the show's final six its most dominant alliance ever. And here we had Shan, Liana, Danny, and Deshawn talking about essentially doing the same thing. Whether they are all actually on board remains to be seen, but allow me to say this: If they do all join forces and ride it all the way to the final four, I do not want to hear a single garbage cry of "reverse racism" or any of that absolute nonsense. If you have a problem with four Black contestants aligning after 40 seasons' worth of all-white alliances, then it is time to turn off your television and take a long hard look in the mirror.
But before you look in that mirror, perhaps you would like to look at an exclusive deleted scene from this week's episode! After the West Coast airing concludes, we will have a great scene showing how Erika is managing over on Exile Island. Check it out at the top of the recap. Also… Surprise, surprise! We coaxed the Hostmaster General himself, Jeff Probst, into answering a few of our questions about this latest episode and the season so far, so make sure to check that out.
No exit interview this week, obviously, but you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss and on Instagram @thedaltonross for more nonsense. And with that, I smash the hourglass once again, and we'll just have to wait to see what happens next week when I serve up another scoop of the crispy!
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Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"