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Survivor’s first merge results in a stunning Tribal Council

This summer, I’m recapping Survivor Borneo week by week, 20 years after each episode premiered. Today, Survivor Borneo, episode 7, “The Merger,” which originally aired Wednesday, July 12, 2000.

“If people are fear and self-preservation motivated, they’ll band together, they’ll form alliances, they’ll start beating people out to try and get rid of the strong ones, and get rid of this, and get rid of that,” Greg Buis said before Survivor: Borneo’s first post-merge Tribal Council. “If that happens, I hope they vote me off really soon because, uh, that to me is—whoa, cool flying fish—that to me is really boring.”

This is both laughably wrong—Survivor alliances are anything but boring!—and yet also kind of prescient, because eventually, a few seasons in, Pagonging does get kind of boring, and leads to the introduction of other game elements, from tribe swaps to hidden immunity idols to advantagepaloozas.

The first merge episode concluded with every single member of one tribe, Pagong, voting for a different player. And every single member of Tagi (minus Sean) voting together, for Gretchen. In other words, one tribe has figured this out, and one has not.

This is such an incredible outcome, and it’s amazing Survivor and the edit don’t make more of a meal of it, chewing over the deliciousness of one tribe splitting their vote five ways, and even voting against its own members (Jenna voted for Gervase, Greg voted for Jenna).

We don’t get much information about why the Tagi four targeted Gretchen, but context clues suggest it’s because she’s the one Pagong player who is clearly playing the game. While she refers, somewhat dismissively, to “people who are strategically playing the game,” she also summarizes the central Survivor concept of keeping strong tribe members before the merge—to ensure a tribe’s survival and strength at the merge—but dumping them after the merge.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sean introduced his non-strategy strategy by saying he’s voting for Collen because “she’s the first in a long list of alphabetical order.” That is just as hilariously dumb and ridiculous today as it was 20 years ago.

Update: Inside Survivor’s Martin Holmes interviewed Sean, and he explained that it

“…was a real strategy and, I thought, a politically innocuous one. Despite how it seemed, I tried to win. My Tagi tribe, aka “the alliance,” Rich, Rudy, Sue, and Kelly, all came at the back of the alphabet, while the opposing tribe, Jenna, Gervase, Colleen, Gretchen, and Greg, all came at the beginning. The strategy would position me to be the last person standing against the alliance, which is what happened. Then I just had to beat the members of the alliance one-by-one, which obviously did not happen.”

That’s rather brilliant! But since the edit doesn’t show us any of that, I am a little skeptical, thinking this could just be a years-later justification.

Despite Sean’s inability to play the game he is playing, he is selected as Tagi’s ambassador to visit Pagong’s camp and then negotiate with Jenna, Pagong’s rep.

How exactly was Sean chosen for this work? And is it surprising that he was so bad at it? “Actually, Sean let me do almost all the deciding,” Jenna said. Sean did contribute something major: adding an “a” to the end of the tribe name, making it “Rattana,” which Sean says is “exotic” and also “give[s] it a little flair, a little pizazz.”

The camp visits and the overnight negotiations took more than 24 hours in real life, and it feels like that much in the episode. Pagong didn’t arrive at Tagi’s beach until halfway through the episode.

There are some really epic moments, with Survivor leaning into its visual storytelling as Pagong paddled away from their camp, leaving the Pagong flag blowing in the wind in slow motion, cutting to images of their abandoned camp. There’s so much stuff left behind! And somehow Pagong had a full outhouse, complete with curtain and lid. (This is before the era of the aquadump.)

The Ambassador’s Summit was a meal—lobster, baked potatoes, bread, wine—on a sand spit, where there was even beds for Jenna and Sean to spend the night. I appreciate that the producers made this a moment, and it was new to everyone. Yet I found the first half to be rather slow and tedious.

Throughout the episode, there are some hints as to what’s coming at Tribal. Jenna told Rich about “rumors that I’ve heard: That you guys are plotting an alliance against us, divide and conquer.” Where are they hearing these rumors from?! (Producers coughcoughcough.)

And the post-merge is much more interesting. Even Greg perks up: “We’ll start being honest now,” he said to the camera, acknowledging that he’s been screwing around with the producers for the first half of the season, with his nonsense answers.

Greg does pick up on what’s going on, though: “Rich is playing a big game, which is very fun.” (The preview for next week’s episode—er, next week minus 20 years—points to the first major power move, with Greg trying to target Rich.)

And Richard Hatch is very clear on both his plans and the naivety of others’ plans: “It sounds like sheer stupidity to me when somebody says, I’m not going to build an alliance.” Amen.

There is a brief check-in with the Tagi four, with Kelly hugging Rich and saying, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” I think that is the first use of that phrase on competitive reality TV. (Of course, this was also the start of competitive reality TV, with the notable exception of Road Rules.)

The immunity challenge opened with the tribe sitting on a floating dock, Probst included, dangling their legs in the water. It’s all so casual, this first season of Survivor! But Probst wants to make it more of a game, telling them that the post-merge game is about “how well you guys survive tribal politics.”

The challenge itself starts with a breath-holding contest. The top three move on to compete for immunity in a distance swim, pulling themselves along underwater ladders.

In the first stage, everyone participates, but despite what’s at stake, i.e. safety, when they popped up for air, many were laughing—having fun, not being angry or frustrated or worried.

Rudy lasted for one minute and 20 seconds, which is amazing, but Gervase, Greg, and Sean ended up winning round one. Sean and Greg came up just under two minutes, and Gervase lasted more than two minutes, even having fun at the end, staying underwater while he counted who was already out (everyone). But while Gervase has no issue swimming out to the start buoy, or holding his breath, he’s basically out of contention right when the second part of the challenge begins.

Immediately after Greg won the first individual immunity, the tribe went to Tribal Council, cutting between their hike and some discussion from the contestants. Yes, in the first post-merge episode of Survivor, there was zero back-at-camp strategizing.

I can’t get enough of this disparity, which is just so amazing to watch now, knowing what the game has become.

I also can’t get enough of the way people refer to “the merger,” which sounds just like corporate consolidation, not a game element. Yet even though the title of the episode is “The Merger,” Jeff Probst starts using its permanent name in the “Last week on Survivor” recap, when he says “the merge” repeatedly. The show is figuring out what to do, even if many of the players are not.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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