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Survivor 45’s spectacular merge episode needed one change to make it even better

Survivor 45’s spectacular merge episode needed one change to make it even better
Jeff Probst has Survivor 45's remaining players choose teams for the immunity challenge (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

Survivor 45 reached its merge-ish episode, and delivered a spectacular 90 minutes that moved swiftly and felt full: of existing relationships deepening or fracturing, new alliances being forged, and wildlife dancing.

The climax came during a Tribal Council where a new-era advantage finally paid off in a stunning moment—though immediately after that, I couldn’t help but wish another part of this new era would disappear forever.

The merge-not-a-merge episode began with a last-second scramble for an idol. Everyone on new Lulu was searching except for Katurah, who was off on her own.

Bruce found the beware advantage, and said, “I don’t care” about its consequences. He learned that the idol was buried in the middle of the shelter. That’s it? No peeling the skin off a snake to reveal a combination for a lockbox that’s only visible at low tide?

At the shelter, Bruce started digging, and then a boat arrived to transport them to their new beach. With 10 minutes to find the idol, Bruce somehow did.

A group of people standing, embracing, and talking on a beach next to the water
Survivor 45’s players reunite as they became one group but not yet one tribe, thanks to the dumb merge twist (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

The players all gathered at Reba’s beach, where Dee, Julie, and J. Maya were thrilled to reunite with Drew and Austin, who Dee described as “the people I trust most in this game.” She also said, “We can’t be too happy,” to not tip off other players.

Austin told Dee and Julie about the amulets, and suggested targeting J. Maya to not only strengthen his amulet, but rain down punishment for depriving him of a sandwich. “I need people to know that I’m pissed at those two,” he said. “We need to find a common enemy”

Why is J. Maya a target, other than the sandwich? The best explanation we got came from Julie, who said “it should be so simple” that Reba dominates with six, but basically J. Maya is so far at the bottom they do not trust her.

Emily met Bruce, and said, “I have some apologizing to do.” They became fast friends and made S’mores under the stars while laughing and singing children’s songs. Just kidding.

The fresh fish from last week’s reward also arrived, which thrilled Kendra. She started crying, then gyrating with excitement. “I literally haven’t eaten anything,” she said.

The non-merged merged tribe was not provided with a merge feast, of course, but they did get some outstanding entertainment: a dancing stick bug whose moves should earn it an Emmy.

Sifu decided to make friends with “psychological warfare,” and we got a brief montage of him terrifying people.

Kaleb and Emily—who really are the alliance of the season so far, and have had an incredible journey up to this point—imagined themselves as swing votes.

“I trust you, by far, the most,” Kaleb told Emily, noting how they could “play both sides” because she’s now bonded with old Reba, and he’s in with old Belo.

Kaleb also told us he planned to be “the most trustworthy and likable version of Kaleb” instead of “this monster who’s coming to destroy all the players in the game—which is true, by the way.”

Yet his charisma was beaming too bright.

Bruce—freaked out that he’s “a pariah” (as he told Kendra, who asked him, “What’s a pepperaya?”)—decided to confront Kaleb. “You have to seriously do some damage control” to do for daring to be nice to former Reba players, he said.

I agree with Kaleb that this is “a very archaic way of looking at the game,” yet broken clock Bruce turned out to have the right time: Kaleb was being perceived as more of a threat than just a nice guy.

Kellie revealed Katurah is not alone with her dislike of Bruce; Kellie said “he’s impossible to play with” and “everyone on Belo is annoyed with him.”

It was the “perfect time to do something,” Kaleb said, but alas, the attempt to blindside Bruce was foiled by Bruce’s team’s win during the immunity challenge.

A person in a baseball cap standing in front of an orange vertical flag that says OUTPLAY OUTLAST and has Survivor's logo
Jeff Probst at the Survivor 45 episode 6 challenge, where he explained they’d arrived at the merge-not-a-merge thing (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

Because I know we’re never going to have Survivor without advantages again, my greatest wish for the new era is that it dumps one of its dumbest ideas: “earn the merge.” (At least we have dispensed with the hourglass fiasco.)

If you’re on Survivor and you get to the merge, you’ve earned it, period. Instead, Jeff Probst and Friends have turned it into some kind of limbo.

“You have not made the individual phase,” he said before the challenge. “You are literally in-between stages,” noting that half the “earns their merge buff, the merge meal, and immunity.”

So yes, half the tribe gets screwed out of a merge feast, because even though they earn the merge after Tribal Council, they don’t get a reward.

Even dumber, the merge-not-a-merge occurred when are there were an uneven number of players, yet the producers had them compete in two teams, leaving one player—Katurah—on the sidelines. So she couldn’t earn her way into the merge at all.

The challenge itself was an extended obstacle course—wow, no way!—but with a puzzle twist: the first puzzle revealed a rebus, which had to be solved in a second puzzle. Its correct answer: SAFELY MOVING FORWARD TONIGHT.

Katurah was left out, and chose to align herself with the blue team and its muscle: Austin, Bruce, Drew,
Julie, Kendra, and Sifu.

Tangent: Did Survivor run out of colors? With a blue, yellow, and red tribe, they split into two teams, red and blue, and the blue team won and got merge buffs that they referred to as orange but at a quick glance looked like kinda like the red buffs. Where is purple? Green? Taupe? Puce?

The challenge involved “a lot of teamwork with people you’re competing against,” Probst shouted. But the blue team worked well together, and the red team fell behind. The blue team was so far ahead they’d finished their big puzzle just as the red team was starting it.

Probst yelled at them, “you are still in this, red, but you gotta move!” Calm down, Screamy McBarkdog.

The seven winners, including Katurah, went to The Sanctuary™, where Julie told us “the seven at the feast can decide who’s going home. Who’s going to risk throwing out a name?”

Sifu did it, throwing out J. Maya’s name. Then Julie mentioned old Lulu, and Kendra said Kaleb “is a threat,” while Katurah said Emily is “a safe vote in the middle.” She argued Kaleb is “Belo strong” so they need to use the opportunity to get rid of a Reba girl.

A smiling person wearing a red fleece coat
J. Maya on Survivor 45 episode 6 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

Back at camp, J. Maya also suggested Kaleb and Emily to Jake. Bruce told Katurah to vote Kaleb, and she was like, nah, go away old man.

Austin, meanwhile, was stuck on his lost sandwich. “She took my sandwich, so I don’t mind her going,” he said to his fellow players, and repeated that in an interview. But Austin really had the long game in mind, wanting to sacrifice is vote again to upgrade his idol.

There was a funny conversation on the beach with Drew, Sifu, and Austin, who were joined first by J. Maya, who Drew told “I’ve got your back, I promise you.” Cut to the same formation of Drew, Sifu, and Austin, now joined by Kaleb, and Drew saying, “I think we all vote J. and keep it simple.”

Kaleb emerged as the target, and Emily was brought in on the plan, because Kaleb and Emily’s bond must not be clear to the others.

“My heart sunk,” Emily said, noting that “if I fight too hard,” she becomes a target. Emily did ask the others if they were worried about him playing the shot in the dark, and then told Kaleb to play it.

Kaleb tried a last-ditch effort of telling Austin, Sify, and Drew about Bruce’s idol, while Bruce said “you go with the masses; you go with Kaleb.”

At Tribal Council, Kaleb made what I think is his biggest mistake in the game so far. Knowing he was the target, he told the group, “I might be the biggest threat here, but I still don’t think I’m the biggest strategic threat to everybody here.”

I imagine he probably meant to say something like You may think I’m the biggest threat, or I might be perceived to be the biggest threat. But not adding that qualifier was not convincing.

Kaleb added, “I think it makes sense for everyone here to write down J,” and she turned it back to his “biggest threat.”

Kaleb then called out the alliance of J. Maya, Dee, and Julie, telling the others that getting rid of J. Maya “lowers your threat level a lot”, and pointed out that a solid block of three in a tribe of 12 would be formidable.

J. Maya told everyone, “he’s a self-admitted biggest threat in the game” and “I just want to remind everyone that this is now an individual game, and this is a player that was losing and losing and losing, and is still sitting here.”

In the voting booth, Kaleb said “J!” loudly, and everyone laughed. Austin gave up his vote.

Before the votes were read, Kaleb said, “I do have one last thing I’m going to try” and handed Probst his shot in the dark scroll. “I’m going to buy a Lotto ticket if this works.”

Let’s pause for a moment. While I’m loving the return of the title sequence, with Scott Duncan’s gorgeous slow-motion photography, I happened to notice the alleged Easter egg that appears each week.

It’s an image that is always in the same part of the intro: at the end, immediately after we see Jeff Probst. This week it was a a shot in the dark die tumbling through the air. Why show the thing that’s failed 8 out of the 9 times it’s been played?

Because this time, it did not. Yes, Kaleb was safe, and the players’ reaction was my own. They actually seemed kind of delighted that it truly paid off. Just look:

People sitting in a dark, torch-lit space reacting with shock and surprise
Survivor’s players react to Kaleb’s shot-in-the-dark immunity win. From left to right: Jake O’Kane, Dee Valladares, Janani “J” Krishnan-Jha, Kellie Nalbandian, Emily Flippen, Kaleb Gebrewold, Nicholas “Sifu” Alsup, Kendra McQuarrie, Bruce Perreault, Austin Li Coon, Katurah Topps, Drew Basile, and Julie Alley. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS)

In the re-vote, Kaleb couldn’t vote since he’d given his up, and Probst said no one could play their shot in the dark. “Do you need to take a moment?” Jeff asked. No, just let them vote! But a moment they got, and then they started scrambling.

J. Maya was telling everyone to vote for Emily, and Emily stood there awkwardly, looking like me in the cafeteria in middle school.

Here is where I was especially annoyed at the phony merge twist. This format makes half the tribe immune—and that’s before any idols or advantages are played.

That is absurd! It also limits what’s possible. Would Kaleb and Emily have been less-obvious targets if half the tribe needed them to feel safe? Would Bruce have been in conversation had his team not won?

The scramble at that moment took place with half of the group feeling secure. What if they’d all been vulnerable? Can we please just return to a normal merge so that an individual is immune, not half of the players? That’s the one change I’d love to see.

In the end, no one voted for Emily except J. Maya, who got everyone else’s votes.

That suggests Kaleb’s argument may have had at least some effect. The big question now is whether he remains a target, or if the others forget about him as they turn on each other. I can’t wait to see that play out!

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    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.

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Monday 6th of November 2023

I wonder if it will help Kaleb that, up until the moment his Shot In The Dark actually worked, he was really poorly playing that Tribal council. While it was a potentially good strategy, the imprecision of his language as you pointed out really made him look like an arrogant bonehead--and I imagine that everyone there thinks that they have a chance to win in the end over someone who is overstating their capability. Combine that with the tendency in recent seasons for players to move on from someone after targeting them once, whether or not they've been successfully eliminated, I wonder if Kaleb doesn't get targeted again until around final 7. Speaking of moving on from someone you are targeting before they've been eliminated, it seemed incredibly dumb for old Reba to target J. Maya over Sifu. Obviously, because of the dumb earn-the-merge, Sifu was safe this week, but even before that they seemed much more focused on getting out J. than Sifu, even though Sifu is clearly a more chaotic player, making him more likely to flip. Sifu has also shown awareness that he is at the bottom of that alliance, whereas J. genuinely seemed to think that her allies had her back. I guess she still would have been screwed once Kaleb was immune, since every other possible eliminee had stronger ties with multiple safe players, but it felt short-sighted for old Reba to target her immediately.


Saturday 4th of November 2023

I dunno…I actually felt bad for J Maya. I kept wondering if there was something we didn’t see that would explain why everybody just really seemed to hate her.

All the stuff at tribal council was entertaining, but shouting out J’s name when Kaleb went up to vote just seemed pretty dickish to me, like kicking her while she was down. 🤷🏼‍♂️


Monday 6th of November 2023

@Joe, Agreed, I'm not sold on Kaleb being anything other than overtly annoying to me, but that's just me. I was not the least bit surprised that his shot in the dark worked. After listening to the Survivor Podcast three weeks ago where Jeff falls all over himself about what a find Kaleb was for casting and what a wonderful guy he is - it just seemed too much of a coincidence that he was saved. They are working overtime trying to get us all to love the guy. He may think that he's fooling everyone, but his game play is front and center which makes me wonder if everyone is either visually handicapped, or too obsessed with naval gazing to care? Maybe it's my own biases rearing their ugly head, but I'm a big rooter for the underdog, and the edit Kaleb is getting activates my desire to see someone else rise to the forefront.

I too wonder how is it that J. Maya became the true, one and only, pepperayah?!


Friday 3rd of November 2023

It's really a doubled edge sword with not having half the tribe immune. If all 13 of them were venerable, than that would have made for a more fun scramble. At the same time though, Caleb would have had longer odds of pulling the right scroll and saving himself. I think Caleb does not pull the winning scroll if he had a 1 in 13 chance, meaning the scramble does not happen anyway.

Happy to see Caleb stay though. He was born and raised in the town right next to where I was raised, and as a Canadian, that has never happened before on SURVIVOR for me, so I'm a bit biased in wanting to see him do well.


Thursday 2nd of November 2023

When Emily sought out Kaleb specifically to tell him to use his shot in the dark I suddenly liked her more. Her move seemed she really wanted to help him.

Yes, everybody voted for Kaleb, but on that high class show Big Brother everyone voted for Jag a few months ago and now Jag just might win.

I love your reaction photo after everyone discovered Kaleb was safe but one person isn't happy. Down in the left hand corner J has her face in her hand. I suspect she's thinking, "I'm screwed."

Great, great, great episode. I think SURVIVOR should give Kaleb a Batman costume to wear for the remaining time he is on the show.


Thursday 2nd of November 2023

I def think that the immunity for half the tribe on the merge needs to stop. Way too much power for votes between 6 people.

If anything they should do a collective vote for one person. That’s it.