Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“If they want to vote me out, go ahead and do it, because I know that they’re gonna suffer really bad if they lose me.” —Ozzy Lusth, Survivor: Cook islands
At long last, here we are: the merge episode — the best episode of every season!
The merge is when all the story lines we’ve been speculating about finally come to a crisis. Will Brad and Sierra run the show? Will Cirie and Ozzy partner up? Will Debbie ‘pretend’ to get drunk and do a freaky dance?
Now, sadly, we know.
Thirteen is a LOT of people for a tribe. It’s crowded on the beach, crowded in the shelter, and basically impossible to keep track of the different alliances. You hear a whisper in the forest, and you don’t know if it’s a new plan or elaborate deception. As Zeke says, “You just have to accept there’s going to be a lot happening around you, and there’s nothing you can do to control it.”
The story we’re seeing on-screen is a face-off between two alliances. On the one hand you have Brad and Sierra’s group that includes Troyzan, Tai and Debbie; on the other, Andrea and Cirie’s group includes Zeke, Aubry and Michaela. It’s the high school jocks vs. the theater kids, and Ozzy and maybe Sarah are somewhere in between.
But I guarantee you that there are a thousand other alliance permutations that are happening off-stage. I bet every person on that beach would draw the battle lines differently. Note for example how Sierra confides in Cirie about Zeke, even though they’re supposedly commanders of opposing armies. After so many tribe swaps, the personal relationships become intricate and confusing.
That’s what makes it so fun to watch!
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This episode had me flashing back to the Cambodia merge so hard that I almost had gastrointestinal distress. Just like in Cambodia, the group quickly decides on a consensus boot — the woman who’s irritating everybody with her bad attitude. (Abi then, Michaela now). And just like in Cambodia, people realize that the person who’s irritating everybody could actually be a tremendous pawn, and shift the target to a more strategic but still marginalized player (Kass/Hali).
Cirie and Zeke win the Fishy for the first half of this episode. They recognize that what the “tribe” as a whole wants doesn’t necessarily align with what they want.
“Is that good for my game?” Cirie asks. “Why would I just go with that plan? Because Sierra said so?” Cirie builds a bond with Michaela and encourages her to “be easy.”
Zeke meanwhile notes that if they’re actually worried about Hali having the idol, it makes sense to stack votes on Hali. Together the two convince the rest of the tribe to switch up the vote, which seems to give the edge to the Andrea/Cirie alliance. Sierra seems like the likely next target.
But in the era of Big Moves Survivor, no successful alliance can last for long. In the evening’s second episode, Zeke upsets the apple cart by targeting Andrea; Andrea finds out and targets Zeke; and Debbie swoops in from the sidelines and rallies the vote for Ozzy.
It’s easy to second-guess Zeke’s move and say he flipped on his allies too soon. After all, as Zeke himself suggests, he flipped too fast on Chris and David both in Millennials vs. Gen X.
But the history of Survivor is littered with players who waited too long — who were the sixth in a six person alliance, and then got voted out like clockwork in sixth place. The episode’s “new sheriff,” Sierra Dawn Thomas, is the perfect example. She toyed with betraying her alliance in Worlds Apart, never saw the perfect opportunity, and was voted out at the final five. You can tell by her aggressive gameplay this season that she’s not going to make that mistake again.
As Zeke says, “If you’re going to live with regret, do you live with the regret of making a move too early, or the regret of not getting a chance to make a move at all? You’ve gotta regret making a move. You’ve gotta play.”
Words to live by. I have been where Zeke is, and there’s nothing worse on Survivor than feeling like people are treating you like a number, not like a decision-maker. In some ways the fault for Zeke’s move lies with Andrea and Cirie for not making Zeke feel like he’s an essential part of the conversation. As Zeke suggests at Tribal Council, if people don’t see a clear path to a victory with you, they’re going to betray you.
Zeke’s problem isn’t that the move isn’t a good idea. It’s that he can’t get anybody to come along for the ride. Sierra just assumes he’s lying to her, and you can understand why. For weeks, he’s been allied with Andrea, and suddenly he wants to turn on her?
The funny thing is, if Zeke actually were lying, he never would approach Sierra with so audacious a plan.
Debbie’s response, on the other hand, is masterful as always: “Zeke is trying to form a coalition for himself,” she says. “I want to make a big move, but I don’t need Zeke to make it.” Just like Zeke, Debbie doesn’t want to be a number. She wants to be the ringleader.
And for this vote, she actually is.
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The Dark Horse Boot
Debbie wins the Fishy for episode 2. It was fun to watch her rally her last-minute plan against Ozzy. She quickly approaches each player and simply informs them, “We’re taking out Ozzy.”
“We are?” says Troyzan.
“We are,” Debbie confirms.
And then she’s on to the next conversation.
Normally the best way to sway a vote is to build a consensus. But in these giant merge tribes, with so many people on the beach, the “Last-Minute Dark Horse Candidate” strategy involves just building up momentum without letting the giant group endlessly discuss it.
As Jeff Probst notes at Tribal Council, Survivor at this point in the game can be a lot like musical chairs. Everyone’s name gets brought up, and whoever the last name is when you head to tribal is the one who goes home. Debbie’s strategy to quickly force a vote through at the last minute makes her plan successful.
I have to give a tribute to Ozzy, who has played more days than any other Survivor contestant (128). He has also been voted out more times than any other contestant (five, including three times in South Pacific). He was one vote away from winning the million in Cook Islands and one challenge away in South Pacific, which make him arguably the nearest-miss contestant in the show’s history. He was the first contestant ever to make a fake hidden immunity idol that was played by another contestant. He is tied for the most individual immunity wins in a single season (five) and has won more individual challenges overall than any other competitor in the show’s history. (Thanks, Survivor Wiki!)
Like many great tragic heroes, he is nigh-unstoppable on the battlefield but fatally flawed. The quote at the start of this blog comes from his first season, Cook Islands, and it’s mirrored pretty perfectly in his parting words this episode: “Good luck eating.” Even 20 seasons after his first foray, Ozzy still doggedly believes that providing for the tribe will earn their gratitude. But the era of Survivor where being a provider mattered is long gone, if it ever existed.
“Survivor has changed me in ways I’ll never forget,” Ozzy says in his parting confessional. And he has truly changed the game.
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.