Now's where the real fun begins because we've made it to the merge! This marks a huge shift in the game, as the next few episodes (and decisions made within them) will set into motion plans which will ultimately crown one of these remaining top ten contestants sole survivor. All members voted out now will serve as the jury responsible for crowning a winner, everyone is fighting for their individual lives, and alliances will be formed, tested, and broken. To mark this momentus occasion, I'll be shifting the format of the blog to match the transition from tribal game to individual's game, starting with a recap of the action in the episode and moving on to some nitty gritty of what we saw go down (and what it might mean for the future).
Merge Has Arrived!
We open on Chan Loh beach. Cydney and Jason notice a bulge in Neal's pocket (he-yo) and assume he must have the idol. A ship comes to take Chan Loh over to their new home for the merge: the original beauty (Gondol) camp. They arrive to have a joyous reunion with their tribesmates, proceed to get drunk, and start scheming HARD. Alliance plans are made left and right. Brains and Brawn both feel strong; it's the beauties who are really the swing vote and--more specifically--Michele and Nick. It seem pretty clear that Tai and Julia are planning to stick with Brawn (or more accurately, stick with Scot), leaving Nick/Michele to choose between the 4 brains or the 5 brawn/beauties. Jason and Scot work on Nick, giving him crucial information about the whereabouts of both Tai and Neal's idols (but leaving out knowledge of Jason's). Debbie gets aggressive with her strategy, seeming to try and almost trick Tai into aligning out of quiet bullying (while Aubry runs around trying to fix Debbie's damage). Michele longs to join forces with Debbie and Aubry (who want Jason or Scot out), but when she and Nick talk, makes it clear that they both feel their best option is with Scot (who won't win because of his personal wealth) and Jason (isn't likeable enough to pull votes) and the rest of that alliance. Nick wins the first individual immunity challenge. We discover that many people are suffering from injuries: Neal, Scot, and Aubry all have pimple-like infections and Tai has horrible scrapes on the inside of both upper thighs from a mishap while climbing a mango tree. When we return to camp post-challenge, the lines have been drawn. Turns out nothing matters though because who should show up but Jeff and Doctor Rupert. They inspect everyone's wounds and deem them okay to stay in the game until they get to Neal. His infection is on his knee, a wound which worries Dr. Rupert because of what it could do to the joint if left untreated. In an emotional moment of frustration, Neal is pulled from the game (and chooses NOT to give his idol to Aubry). The remaining tribe members learn they won't be attending a tribal council, meaning Nick and Michele set a survivor record for remaining tribal council virgins AFTER the first elimination of the merge.
Now lets get to some of the standouts for this episode. These are players who got a significant amount of airtime, private confessionals, and were responsible for the strategic moves and conversations in the episode.
MVP Nick: Out From the Invisible Edit.
I'm calling Nick the unlikely MVP of the merge episode. Nick managed to stay out of the spotlight for most of the season so far. Because he's never been a part of a tribe that attended tribal, he hasn't had much time to get involved in important strategy. We've seen a shift recently however. This new screen time likely means one of two things: he's getting a short character arc before being voted out soon, or he's going deep into the game.
As much as I disliked him early on and hoped beauty went to tribal just to clip him out, Nick's really turned it around this episode. He's proven to be quite good at reading people. He managed to get himself and Michele into the swing position this episode and was working it so well. He had both sides (brains and brawn) feeling like he was interested in working with them. He formed one-on-one ties with Aubry. He had a pow-wow with Scot and Jason and learned the location of two of the three immunity idols. He even managed to work on his relationship with Michele. When the two of them convened to talk strategy, he led not by telling her what they'd do, but asking her what her thoughts were FIRST. When it was clear they were in agreement about going with brawn being their best option, he asked HER who she wanted to see voted out from the brains (Aubry).
Debbie: Another Brain Without Social Intelligence.
Oh Debbie. You'd been doing so well. I worried she'd come on too kooky strong in the first few days to stick around but had high hopes for you since it became clear that you were intentionally being fun and weird to downplay your behind-the-scenes strategic cunning. She seemed right on track to play her way deep into the game. This episode seemed to suggest all her hard work was headed right for the toilet (appropriately, along with her now fallen Toilet Paper comrade). She was playing this merge with the kind of aggression that stinks of desperation, a fact everyone picked up on. Her own brains members were embarrassed and forced to run around putting out her fires, while those very people who she was trying to win over saw her as one of the biggest reasons NOT to align with the brains tribe. I hope she can turn it around.
Aubry: Perpetually in Hot Water.
Aubry had a hell of an episode. She began the episode sure she'd be the next voted out, after writing Julia's name down at tribal only to send home Peter which left Joe and herself at the bottom of Gondol. She was saved by the merge and reunited with Neal, sure she could turn her bad luck around. She spent much of the episode trying to put out Debbie's fires, only to feel her attempts to woo both Nick and Michele individually turn out unfruitful. Then, as her name was being thrown around as the decided first target in tribal, she gains another three days in the game by sheer luck--but at the cost of losing her closest ally. She's clearly in a very unstable place; however, she's been in an unstable place more than any single other person still in this game. On day two, she had a mental breakdown, which she recovered from. In her Gondol tribe, her name got thrown around during the Peter vote. Now, she's narrowly escaped ANOTHER attempted vote out. She's on thin ice, but she's also setting herself up with one hell of a resume. If the brawn/beauty alliance holds true enough for the other brains members to get voted out but Aubry can manage to survive, she'd have a great story and see three of her close allies as jury members to vote for her. It still seems unlikely, but she's managed to survive so far and seems the best equipped to navigate her way out of rough waters. Lord knows she's done it a couple of times already.
Scot: The Linchpin of the Brawn/Beauty Alliance.
I'm blown away by how well Scot's done. I had such low hopes for him and, while he's still far way from the end, he's playing a winner's game. So many people this season seem to be playing timidly, biding their time and trying to fly under the radar (think of Michele, Joe, Julia, and Cydney, who haven't done much to beef up their resume at this halfway point of the game). While Scot's game is definitively risky, it's working quite well for him so far. Many people see him as a nonthreat simply because they overestimate how much his personal worth will matter to the jury if he makes it to the end. I think this is a huge mistake because after all, this is the game of Survivor. It can become a popularity contest, but if a relatively likeable player gets to the end with one or two timid, cautious players, it seems unlikely he DOESN'T go home with the money (unless of course we're talking Tai).
He's 100% the reason that beauty and brawn had such an easy and straightforward alliance. He created a strong bond early on with Jason and Cydney. He created a strong early bond on the new Gondol with Tai, and then protected Julia from getting voted out. He's the reason brawn went into the merge essentially 5 strong. It was his highly risky move to tell Nick about Tai's idol, leading to Jason following suit and sharing the news of Neal's. While my first instinct was "how could you BE so stupid?" the more I thought about it the more it was actually quite genius. They gave Nick just enough information to make it clear that they trusted him. Nick also saw this play as a sign of arrogance on the part of Scot and Jason, a read which played in their favor since Nick sees that as an opportunity to blindside them down the line when they let their guard down due to cockiness. Scot's game is definitively atypical--he's clearly cemented himself into a leadership position, yet he's not (yet) seen as a strong target. Curious to see how this plays out.
Where Are We Headed?
Brains tribe is obviously in hot water. They were already set to be the target of the first vote. Neal leaving the game could be great or terrible for them. He was a huge threat and target and, with him AND his idol out of the game, this could take a lot of the heat off of the brains tribe as a target. This could be the perfect time for a blindside to go down, or for a surprise flip early enough that it wouldn't rattle future jury member's trust too much.
What seems more likely however is that at least for this first vote, brawn and beauty will look to legitimately christen their alliance by voting out someone like Aubry or Debbie, and save a bigger move for at least one more vote. I could also see Nick going home. If Michele re-bonds with Julia and they bring in Cydney (maybe Debbie's words about wanting a girl to get to the end will get to them), Nick could get taken out. He's clearly a strong physical threat (after he put up such a fight on that reward challenge shooting hoops against Scot and winning the first immunity challenge) and if Scot and Jason regret telling him about the idol, they could clip him out just like they did with Alecia pre-swap.