More than any other season in recent memory, I’ve been dying to get to the merge. Outside of the Angies and Zanes of the world, Survivor: Philippines is a remarkably well-cast season. The returnees have that perfect balance of experience without being so legendary that they’ll render the new castaways starstruck, and there are just enough game savvy new players to keep things interesting. I really can’t remember the last season where there were this many people in the game who were not only intimately familiar with how the game is played, but were actively engaged in playing it, all at the same time. There’s also an entire host of colorful characters thrown in for flavor, from Brazilian spice rack Abi-Maria to child actress Lisa Welchel. Even recently-departed Russell Swan, with his self-flagellating approach to captaining a tribe, and fellow returning castaway Mike Skupin, who can hardly go a day without injuring himself in some fashion, round out a bright and lively cast. So it’s exhilarating that “Not the Only Actor On This Island” gets right down to it and merges the tribes almost immediately, contributing a sense of frenzied scrambling to an already hectic game, as Malcolm hurries to dig up his hidden immunity idol before departing to the merge, with other castaways alternating between child-like glee and manic trepidation about the changing game ahead.
Once the merge comes, the game immediately goes to the wolves. RC posits a “we are family” mentality while trying to set up her own moves, while Lisa gives up her cover to Penner. You’d think this revelation would be played closer to the vest, but there’s a cavalier attitude to Lisa’s approach that wasn’t there before she found herself as a key swing vote in a majority alliance. It marks the beginning of the erosion of Lisa’s motherly personality, as she comes across as smug in her security, even if her big discovery of the episode isn’t a discovery she intended to make. While being the tribe mom and hanging everyone’s clothes out to dry, she discovers Malcolm’s immunity idol in his bag. It’s encouraging, from a gameplay standpoint, that Malcolm doesn’t flip like a crack house mattress over the foible. Instead, he invites Lisa into the fold with he and Denise, which should make for a pretty strong three-person core alliance, and I kept hoping that Malcolm would find two other stragglers to boost his numbers and wrest control of the game from all opposition with a solid five. Maybe get RC and Skupin on his side, even though it would behoove him to surround himself with less obvious threats (Denise could win the whole thing if she gets in front of the jury, to say nothing of her viability as a stealth challenge threat, and Skupin certainly cuts an imposing physical presence).
However, while Lisa’s relatively kind-hearted approach isn’t eroded in her interactions with Malcolm, she comes across as vaguely superior in her assessment of what people on the bottom of an alliance might be doing wrong in a big speech at tribal council (maybe she was just thrown by being there for the first time? Tandang IS the only tribe in the history of the show to make it all the way to the merge without ever having been to a tribal council). This speech is amusing for how Lisa is positioned in the dead center of the shot, perfectly framed at the divide between the former-Tandang and the former-Kalabaw seating arrangements. It reflects the framing of her argument, in a sense, as she makes the observation that she could see how maybe the people in the bottom four alliance might try to squeeze in on the Tandang six as a means of lasting just a little bit longer, even if it’s not in an optimal position. This is an innocuous enough statement, but it comes out sounding smug nonetheless. I feel we’ve seen enough of Lisa to surmise that this was unintentional on her part. I can’t imagine she meant to come off badly. That said, I feel that it speaks to an underlying complacency on her end, that perhaps she’s grown too comfortable in her alliance, and now she feels safe in making observations from a superior position. But, as we learn with Jonathan Penner, you can feel safe all you want, but you can never really know when a blindside is coming.
The first individual immunity challenge requires holding onto a spool of rope holding a bucket with weight equal to roughly 25% of the castaway’s body weight, maintaining their grip with only their wrists and their own inertia, with the slightest slackening on their part leading to the rope unspooling at a catastrophically exponential rate. None of the presumed challenge threats come out on top, with individual immunity for the men going to Carter, though individual immunity for the women goes pretty much like you’d expect, going to Denise without much fuss. But then the scrambling begins. Artis states that he’s glad Penner and RC didn’t get immunity, suggesting that the majority alliance might split their votes between the two so that all their bases are covered in the event that Penner plays the idol. Jeff Kent, however, is more concerned with putting all the group’s eggs in the Penner basket by blindsiding the blue-eyed vet and sending him packing with an idol in his pocket. Hardly one for modesty, Kent feels that the fate of Kalabaw hinges on his decision, as he fears what will become of his alliance if he goes with Tandang and winds up holding the short straw. And so we head into tribal council with loyalties in question, and Penner leaning towards a healthy suspicion, but also a cautious optimism.
In a hilarious turn around from earlier in the episode, RC claims that Tandang is a family, even though families tend to fight every now and then. Abi rightly calls RC on her BS (not that it makes me like Abi any better than I do, which is to say not at all), quickly pivoting to deriding her former ally for betraying her, a betrayal about which RC still seems to be largely clueless. RC protests ever having taken hidden immunity idol clue, though Abi persists in her accusations of betrayal. Kent, meanwhile, argues the merits of a Cochrane-esque strategy of flipping on your tribe to move yourself a little farther than you thought you’d go (not realizing that, more often than not, your position doesn’t improve by any appreciable margin by simply flipping sides. Such a power play needs some kind of leverage to improve one’s position, such as a hidden immunity idol, or a swing vote in a deadlocked situation. Excepting this, a player will have to find a way into a core alliance in the larger majority to really do damage). Hardly one to keep a blindside under wraps, Kent cops to his belief that there will be a blindside when Probst asks for his opinion on the matter, and not too long after having asked Pete if there should be a target on the backs of returning players.
This leads to Penner playing his idol and, to his initial amusement, and, later, his abject horror, discovering that without having played his immunity idol, he’d have received enough votes to be sent packing. Thankfully, the idol protected him from the surefire ouster, sending RC packing in his stead. The vote-splitting strategy worked, but it feels as though they’ve awakened a sleeping giant in Penner, who’s as cutthroat as any player the game has ever seen. His plans may not always work, but he often goes down fighting. It should be exciting to see how Penner reacts after being backed into a corner like this. As for RC…it’s always the pretty ones walking the plank. But hey, she’ll at least be back every week as the first member of the jury. I take my consolations where I can get them.