As I surmised last week, the dreaded fake merge-slash-hourglass twist made its unwelcome return, rendering half of this double episode utterly redundant. A twist that suddenly strips the immunity winners essentially makes all of the pre-challenge plotting and scheming a waste of time. Yet, in spite of those frustrations, this was one of my favorite “merge” episodes in a long time, and that’s again due to the strength of this cast and their willingness to be the most authentic versions of themselves in TV’s most deceptive game.
However, before we jump into the rich character aspects of this episode, let’s get the twisty nonsense out of the way. First, Jeff Probst gives his best salesman’s pitch on the returning merge twist, outlining some of the tweaks he’s made. This includes clueing everyone in that the exiled player has the power to change the game, letting the challenge winners volunteer to swap places with the exiled, and … Applebee’s? Let’s put it this way: Jeff is much better at selling onion rings and Shark Bowls than he is at promoting the twist that I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking he’d been moonlighting as an Applebee’s server during the 2020 production shut down.
The merge challenge is brilliantly tense and hard-fought, which is all the more frustrating that the twist makes it all for naught. Jonathan dodges rolling boulders like a jacked Indiana Jones and gives his team a considerable lead, allowing plenty of time for Lydia and Maryanne to complete the puzzle. After claiming victory, the winning team chooses to send Rocksroy to exile — the temptation of bacon burgers no doubt killing any consideration of swapping places. So while the winners gobble chicken wings and french fries and the losers commiserate over a meager portion of rice back at camp, Rocksroy makes his way to exile for two days of alone time.
Now, for all my quibbles with the twist, the time spent with Rocksroy in exile is sort of beautiful in its simplicity. If anyone on this cast appreciates the chance to test themselves in nature, it’s the endearingly old-school Rocksroy. Working hard at camp and living off the land has been his M.O. from the start, so this time away with nothing but a pot and a machete allows him to put his survival skills to use. There’s a gorgeous shot of Rocksroy atop a hill, taking in the beauty of the surrounding Fijian islands as he tells us about his deteriorating eyesight and how he wants to burn this image into his mind to draw upon for years to come.
Jeff’s boat eventually disrupts this relaxing, scenic view. As with Erika last season, Jeff lets Rocksroy in on the hourglass and its immense power. If Rocksroy smashes the glass, he reverses time, resulting in the challenge winners becoming vulnerable and he and the losers gaining safety. Again, the issue with this twist is that the outcome is obvious. Even a conservative, call-it-down-the-middle player like Rocksroy isn’t dumb enough to pass up free immunity. It’s such a no-brainer that it’s almost insulting that the episode attempts to make it look like Rocksroy is seriously debating it. That said, I did laugh at him mentioning “the Tori factor,” as if being able to stick it to his irritating tribemate was the ultimate decider.
Despite Rocksroy’s decision to undo all the strategy talk from the preceding hour, this episode’s strength is its focus on relationships. Sometimes merge episodes can be a trepidatious feeling-out process, where players are scared to make the first move. Instead, they seek the comfortable familiarity of their old tribemates. That’s not the case here. These 12 castaways are immediately in each other’s business. Perhaps some of that is spurred on by the twist, or maybe it’s the thirst for human interaction after weeks of pandemic lockdown. But it’s also because these players are not afraid to share — and I’m not just talking about their habit of spilling secrets about advantages. Throughout the episode, there are several bonding moments, from the preciousness of Maryanne and Lydia connecting over their “grandma names” to the more profound, fatherly pep talks Mike gives Omar and Jonathan.
The standout of these scenes is a heartfelt conversation between Hai and Romeo. As Hai tells his tribemates about his Tinder love story (nothing to do with the Swindler; don’t worry), Romeo reflects on his own experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He admires how open Hai is about his sexuality because he has often hidden parts of himself or changed to fit in. Romeo expands in a private chat with Hai, explaining how being gay isn’t as widely accepted coming from an immigrant family from El Salvador. He still has family members that don’t know about his sexuality, and he worries that they will love him less because of it. It’s raw and heartbreaking yet uplifting in how Hai is there to offer support. And it highlights the importance of Survivor’s recent diversity campaign; having more than just the token minority allows for differing perspectives and experiences to be shared.
Of course, it’s not all personal stories and emotional connections; there is still a game to be played. Hai appreciates how everyone is bonding, but he needs agency, which means gathering the numbers to propel him forward. A new alliance quickly comes together between Hai, Drea, and Jonathan, who each vouch for their closest allies, resulting in the formation of an eight-person voting bloc. An eight-strong alliance seems a little cumbersome to manage at this stage of the game, but hey, who am I? The eight soon lock their targets on Chanelle and Tori, the so-called troublemakers in their former tribes. Chanelle walks up on the group talking about her on a couple of occasions, and it has all the awkwardness of an uninvited party guest showing up on your front porch. Luckily for Chanelle, she ends up with immunity due to Rocksroy’s time-meddling, so she’s off the chopping block. No big deal. Just switch the vote to Tori. That’s simple, right?
In true Survivor fashion, the clearest target of the episode ends up winning individual immunity, ruining the majority’s plans. I’m not sure if Tori knew how much danger she was in, but it was a clutch victory nonetheless. It also kicks camp into chaos as alliances and relationships reshape in the mad scramble before tribal council. The limited number of target options means the plan has to be airtight. Initially, Jonathan sticks out, not so much as a sore thumb but as a giant, hulking fist. Thor in the flesh is an obvious physical threat, and the opportunity to strike is staring the tribe in the face. Romeo, in particular, is gung ho on taking out Jonathan. But others, like Hai and Lindsay, see the superhero-looking muscle man as a shield and would rather vote out a wild card like Maryanne.
It seems like Maryanne is an option most can get on board with, that is, until Omar hears about it. Even though he intended to sit back, especially as he doesn’t have a vote for this tribal, Omar jumps into action to protect his former Taku teammate. Omar knows that Maryanne is beneficial for his game; she is a trusted ally with an idol and an extra vote, ammunition that could come in handy down the line. So Omar uses his wizardry to push the vote onto Lydia, twisting their conversation to make it appear as if she isn’t committed to the eight. Omar does the rounds and looks to be gaining traction, even keeping Maryanne calm despite her nervousness about being a potential target.
When Hai hears about the new scheme, he isn’t happy. Lydia is his No. 1; he was willing to go to rocks for her. “In Survivor, your relationships take precedent, and Lydia going will hurt my game,” Hai explains in confessional. So he goes back on the offensive, hoping to convince his allies that Maryanne is the right choice to go. It’s all very turbulent and exciting, especially watching two competent strategists like Hai and Omar scramble to put together their opposing plans.
Yet, the end result is somewhat confusing — not that Lydia is voted out but that Hai was one of the votes against her! Again, he almost went to rocks for her two episodes ago! And he seemed immovable in voting against her this episode too. So what changed? Did Omar manage to convince him? Did he see the writing on the wall and adjust accordingly? I hope Hai gets the chance to explain himself next week and that it’s not just brushed under the palm fronds.
Despite my misgivings about the twist, this episode ultimately delivered on the pre-merge promise of a dynamic and combustible merge game. It was a near-perfect blend of strategic skullduggery and wholesome human moments. Survivor 42 boasts a cast of characters that are somehow capable of being deceptive gamers and authentic human beings simultaneously. If this is a taste of what’s to come, we could be in for a thrilling post-merge game.
• Credit to Drea for absolutely nailing what Rocksroy’s power was going to be. Remember, this cast hadn’t seen Survivor 41. So either Drea’s a genius, or Jeff’s twists are becoming predictable.
• Back to Hai’s vote for Lydia, I wonder how much the Amulet advantage played into his decision. Earlier in the episode, we saw Hai, Drea, and Lindsay reconvening about their shared powers. Given Drea and Lindsay are also part of the eight, perhaps Hai thought there was more value in that trio than as a duo with Lydia.
• Tori being mad at Rocksroy for smashing the hourglass and telling him she sent him to exile as a gift was quite something. If that’s a gift, I wouldn’t want a birthday present from Tori.
• Line of the week: Mike to Lydia, “Are you buff-shaming me?”