Warning: This recap for Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers contains spoilers.
It’s the most wonderful time of the season. That’s right, the Survivor merge. The birth of new relationships, shifting dynamics, accelerated gameplay and… product placement? I’m not saying the Outback Steakhouse sponsored merge feast was obnoxious, but it made Adam Sandler shilling Popeye’s Chicken in Little Nicky seem tasteful. Although, speaking of Adam Sandler, at least this wasn’t quite as shameless as the time the cast of Survivor: South Pacific were forced to watch Jack and Jill. What a cruel thing to inflict on physically and mentally exhausted human beings. Actually, what a cruel thing to inflict on human beings in general.
Despite the Outback outbreak and Jeff Probst reading out marketing copy like a cargo-short wearing PR man, this merge episode of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers did also include all the things we love about the Survivor merge. It’s no secret that I’ve been relatively harsh on this season so far — it’s not irredeemable, just severely lacking in exciting gameplay and compelling personalities. But what it did have was a diverse set of relationships and alliances built-up over the first six episodes and the coming together of these disparate groupings made for an intriguing episode of shifting allegiances and newly drawn battle lines.
FEAST OR FAMINE
The merge feast has been a staple of the game since Jenna Lewis and Dr. Sean spent the night downing champagne in Survivor: Borneo. It’s a celebration of reaching a pivotal milestone in the game and a much-needed replenishment for castaways on the brink of death. I’ve already given Outback Steakhouse one too many mentions in this recap, but someone happy to get their mouth around a Bloomin’ Onion is Devon. All out of rice and down to their last finger scoop of sugar, the Levu tribemates are running on empty. “I think if we don’t merge soon we’ll die,” Ashley says. I thought she was being hyperbolic but then an impressive drone shot shows a lifeless Devon sprawled out on the beach, and I thought we might have literally witnessed our first Survivor fatality. Hashtag that CBS! #SurvivorFatality
Fortunately, for Devon and CBS, the surfer bro is still breathing and ready to stuff his face with copious amounts of steak and Fosters lager. The former Heroes, Healers, and Hustlers exhale a sigh of a relief and let out a cheer of triumph as Probst instructs them to drop their buffs. Hugs and smiles abound as Ryan is left hanging on a high-five (it’s happened to the best of us) — eleven other people and not one of them reciprocated, that’s just cold-blooded. After some teasing from Probst about there not being a merge feast this season, he reveals the Outback surprise and reels off a menu like a joyous Gordon Ramsey. The newly merged tribe head around the corner to their makeshift island restaurant and hurriedly fill their stomachs.
It’s not long though before the game talk fires up. Between chomps of beef and swills of ale, the eager castaways begin giving each other the eye. It’s time to reconnect with old allies and size up the new competition. Chrissy is instantly rubbed the wrong way by Joe and his “loud and obnoxious” behavior. After two steaks (well-done obviously, he doesn’t do any of that raw crap) and three desserts, Joe lets his guard down somewhat, telling Chrissy and Ben about his previous idol play. The info perks Chrissy’s paranoia and has her wondering whether Joe has another idol. She brings up her concerns with her former Hero ally Ben, but he’s reluctant to talk strategy at the dinner table in front of others. Ben tells us that it’s no longer about the team but about “me and my family” as the game switches to an individual fight to the finish. “There’s gonna be blindsides, lies, and I’m pretty sure someone is going to cry,” Ben states.
FINDING A MAJORITY
Returning to camp for the first time as a merged tribe, it quickly becomes a mad scramble to find numbers. On a tribe of 12, the lucky number is seven, and the former Healers feel they have an advantage by having five of them still in the game. Jessica reconnects with Desi and asks her if Joe is still on board with herself, Cole, and Dr. Mike. Desi confirms Joe is with them and that they can use him right now while’s beneficial to their games. With five Healers locked-in, that means the group just need two more people for a majority. Jessica and Dr. Mike are hoping those two players are Ben and Lauren, who they just spent the last eight days with on the swapped Yawa tribe. It’s a sound strategy in theory. It makes perfect sense for the Healers to stick together at the precarious first merge vote. If you already have a willing five and only have to worry about finding an extra two, then that’s just basic maths.
Meanwhile, Ryan reconvenes with his old Hustler partner Devon and the pair come up with their own plan to secure the majority. During the swap, Ryan made a tight bond with Chrissy, and to a lesser degree JP, while Devon and Ashley became a close duo in their own right on the depleted Levu beach. Those swapped-formed connections provide an opportunity for Ryan and Devon to create a Hustler-and-Hero super-alliance that would potentially give them the majority. However, just like the Healers, it would require Ben and Lauren to provide them with the numerical advantage. “The merge vote is the cream of the crop of Survivor,” Ryan says “it decides who dictates the rest of this game.”
SITTING IN THE MIDDLE
As the two sides begin to take shape, Ben and Lauren find themselves sitting slap-bang in the middle. Devon believes that Lauren is still following the old Hustler mantra and brings her in on the grand plan. He tells her that it would be the smart move to take out a Healer at the first merge tribal council, preferably Cole or Joe. However, Lauren tells Dr. Mike that she’s sticking with the new Yawa tribe, and brings him up to speed on Devon’s plan. Mike is visibly concerned but believes he can trust both Lauren and Ben.
Lauren seems secure in where her allegiances lie, but Ben is in much more of a muddle. When Devon talks to Ben and Chrissy about the Hustler/Hero supergroup and the idea of taking out Cole or Joe first, Ben listens intently but doesn’t commit. “I can go either way,” he tells us in confessional. Despite his early alliance with Chrissy, Ben has grown fond of Lauren and Mike on both a personal and strategic level due to his time spent on the Yawa tribe. He could easily have the numbers by staying with the Healers. His only sticking point? Cole. And it’s a cinnamon sticking point.
Ben has made his feelings about Cole abundantly clear over the past couple of weeks. Cole’s inconsiderate behavior, especially when it comes to food, has really pushed Ben’s buttons, so much so that even when Cole collapsed it didn’t elicit any sympathy from the former Marine. Cole doesn’t help himself this episode when he’s caught snacking on cinnamon sticks back at camp. If he weren’t so busy stuffing himself with snacks, he’d perhaps have noticed the clue to an advantage which he literally had in his hand at one point. “He’s selfish,” says Ben, after witnessing the cinnamon stick crime, “and I don’t think Cole respects anyone here. He just respects himself.” After Ben airs his grievances to the group, Jessica and Mike hold a mini-intervention with Cole to try and get him back on the straight and narrow.
Interestingly, Ben goes to Dr. Mike for a consultation, not for any sort of sexual dysfunction, but to get his thoughts on potentially booting Cole or Joe. What I find interesting about this is how Dr. Mike has become a central figure and someone that people clearly trust. Lauren went straight to him with Devon’s plan, and now Ben is openly admitting to the good doctor that he’s wavering. It speaks well for Dr. Mike’s game, even if he is shocked that everyone else is playing as hard as he’s playing. Not sure I agree entirely with Mike on that point, did he forget there is a person called JP on this season? Actually, I think the whole tribe forgot about JP, he’s probably still at Outback Steakhouse reading the kid’s menu.
THE BATTLE LINES
Desi wins the first individual immunity challenge — a cool concept taken from Australian Survivor where castaways have to spin a ball around in a hoop without it dropping. It’s simple but effective. Of course, Survivor US adds a balance beam component because a confused staffer obviously ordered too many beams once upon a time and now the show has to get their money’s worth out of them. The highlight of the challenge, however, is Probst continually piling on Ryan — who drops out after two seconds — by asking Financial Analyst Chrissy to calculate how many times longer Ashley and Desi spent in the challenge than the bellhop. Ryan takes it with the humor it was intended, but the rest of the tribe begin to see Chrissy’s maths skills as a sign that she’s… SMART! As someone with self-diagnosed dyscalculia, I can’t actually tell you if Chrissy’s quick equations were Rain Man-like impressive or not.
Back at camp, worried about his position in the game, Cole apologizes to Ben for his piggish eating habits. Ben feigns acceptance but is still far from Cole’s biggest fan. “I have to think tactically, not emotionally,” Ben says, weighing up his options before tribal council. His decision becomes even more difficult when Mike and the Healers choose Chrissy as their target – Ben’s closest ally from the original Heroes tribe. Ben talks to Lauren and pushes for a Healer to go first because he doesn’t trust Cole. Lauren is unsure. “I don’t trust [Cole] either,” Lauren says, “but we need to think about ourselves.” Lauren has played a somewhat quiet game, and it’s hard to tell where her real loyalty lies, but in this moment, and with the way the vote goes down, it appears she is tightest with Ben.
Cole continues doing his rounds and spills more secrets, this time telling Joe about the Yawa pact. Joe questions why they would bring Ben in on the plan. “That guy’s gonna flip on you,” Joe states, and for all his brashness, for the most part, Joe’s reads have been on point throughout this game. On a season where the majority of castaways are playing logical, if somewhat predictable, games, Joe is out there like the Tasmanian Devil blustering through camp. Joe’s playing Buckaroo on a checkers board. The best thing about the Probation Officer is that he doesn’t care that his strategy is so out in the open. He proudly admits that he SHOULD be the number one or two target after Cole mentions he’s heard his name brought up. Joe is erratic but dangerous, and the fear he instills causes the opposing group to come up with a Plan B. In case Joe plays an idol on himself or Cole, Chrissy says they should instead vote Jessica. Uh-oh.
THE PRICE YOU PAY
Tribal Council begins with talk of post-merge scrambling and how everyone is equally nervous about going home. Then Joe blows things up by calling BS on the whole “we’re all worried” talk. “There’s three names that I’ve heard today,” he says, before touting him himself as a Survivor triple-threat — strategic, physical, and smart. He’s basically letting everyone know that he knows he’s a target, and putting them on edge by not playing along with the usual smoke and mirrors game of tribal council. “Are you about that life? Because I’m about that life,” he states. Nobody seems quite sure if they’re about that life or what that life entails but one thing is clear — when Joe’s goes to tribal, the game comes alive. “Deuces!” he boldly exclaims, which leads to Dr. Mike mimicking Joe, accent, deuces, and all.
Then, just when you think the show is over, Joe whips out his hidden immunity idol, brandishing it like a weapon. “Did I say I found an idol? No, I found idols,” he boasts, “Every camp I go to I’m gonna find an idol. So let’s switch up the game up. Let’s not talk about this vote. Let’s talk about the next vote.” He then places the idol around his neck, essentially taunting his opponents into voting for him. It’s not the first time we’ve seen the ‘reveal-the-idol-at-tribal’ move — Malcolm Freberg famously pulled this off in Survivor: Philippines, using the idol as a fear tactic. Mike Holloway also tried something similar in Worlds Apart to lesser success but was still able to cause a healthy amount of paranoia. Joe does, however, end up playing the idol on himself. Unlike last time, it’s the wrong read. But even if Joe took a moment to analyze the faces of his tribemates, he’d most likely have chosen to use it on Cole, which would have failed just the same.
In the end, Ben and Lauren join the Hustler/Hero power alliance by voting out Jessica in a 7-5 vote. It’s a disappointing end for the Nurse Practitioner who ultimately pays the price for Cole’s boneheaded actions, similar to Figgy in Millennials vs. Gen-X who was booted before numbskull Taylor. If Cole weren’t such a selfish person, then perhaps Ben would have felt more inclined to stick with the Healers going forward. But Jessica isn’t entirely free of blame. She’d witnessed first-hand how damaging Cole was for her game and yet still ran around after him putting out the fires he’d started. Jessica let her infatuation with the Wilderness Guide cloud her strategic thinking and instead of distancing herself from Cole she doubled-down on helping him. I’m sure he’d have still taken her for a “Chocolate Thunder from Down Under” after the season regardless. Instead, being closely linked with Cole just made it that much easier for the alliance to turn her into collateral damage.
As far as Ben and Lauren are concerned, was this the right decision? Ben is close with Chrissy and probably has more room to maneuver in that Hustler-Hero grouping than he would have with the Healers stronghold on the other side. Lauren is harder to read because it isn’t clear what her fellow tribemates think about her. From what she told us in confessional, it seemed like she was happy to stick with the new Yawa alliance and move forward with the Healers. She even told Dr. Mike about the opposing alliance’s plans. But then she voted against them. That shows she trust Ben more than she does Mike, but it puts her in an awkward position now, as she has potentially burnt her bridges with the Doctor and put her faith in a man that has a tighter ally in Chrissy.
Overall, an intriguing merge episode once we got past the near ten-minute Outback Steakhouse plug. The shifting alliances and competing plans made for compelling TV. It’s always fun to see two sides going into battle with up-in-the-air swing votes teetering in the middle. Then to top it off, Joe lit up the proceedings with an audacious tribal council performance and a necessary but ultimately incorrect idol play. If this is a sign of things to come in this post-merge game, then I’m all about that life!
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Chrissy: Perhaps jumping in to answer Probst’s maths questions wasn’t the smartest decision in a game where any sign of intelligence can brandish you with the label STRATEGIC THREAT. However, Chrissy is set-up with multiple alliances, and she decided to come up with a Plan B in case Joe had an idol – which he did.
Ryan: He may have been left hanging on his high-five, but when it came to getting the numbers, he succeeded. Ryan didn’t receive any blowback from Devon for voting out former Hustler Ali last week, and the bellhop seems to have two strong allies, in both Devon and Chrissy.
Devon: I was a little worried when Lauren went and spilled his plan, but in the end, she voted with Devon and co. He and Ryan have linked back up and now with the majority look set to cause that “chaos” they talked about back in Episode 1.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: