This is it, guys! Merge time! And the end of Redemption Island!
Which would have totally been a surprise if they didn't already tell us this in the preview for this week's episode. And they didn't just tease the game changer, but pretty much announced it. Which is kind of regrettable, as it took away a potential surprise in the midst of a run of pretty mundane episodes.
Also pretty regrettable – to us at least – is that the producers chose to coincide the merge with the reentry of the Redemption Island ultimate warrior back into the game. That's too neat, too obvious, and we reckoned it would be too much all at once. Wouldn't have it been more enjoyable, more entertaining if the Redemption Island duels continued while the remaining players vied for Individual Immunity? In short, in crass terms, our concern was that combining these two moves would pretty much be the equivalent of the show shooting it's load. Would that be the case? We should see.
But, first, we found the Bronx Zoo Egyptian Cobra! It's curled up next to Matt in his humble Redemption Island abode. Let's hope that the reptile is neither frightened nor provoked by Sarita singing the praises of the very same people who voted her out just minutes earlier, because that's exactly what she does as soon as she arrives at Matt's "casa" (oh, so it's your place now, Matt? We understand you've been living there for like 20 days now, but wouldn't the Christian thing to do be to completely offer up your shelter, calling it "our casa," or, better yet, "God's casa that he has so graciously provided for me and another worthy Redemption Island competitor?"). Luckily, both the snake and Matt can stand Sarita more than us, and instead of attacking her or asking her to be quiet so one could catch some shuteye, Sarita goes on to extol the virtues of the tribe that blindsided her for no reason, encouraging Matt to join up with them when he inevitably beats her in the upcoming Redemption Island Duel-Chamber of Children's Games.
But wait! Matt has a wattle bitty owwie on the side of his foot. OH NO! How will he compete in the upcoming Parcheesi meets tetherball competition? He's sunk! And speaking of sunk, we when we had our first glimpse of Tropicana Pure Premium Homestyle Orange Juice Redemption Island Arena (with all the remaining members of both tribes populating the bleachers) were certain that this week's duel was going to be a life-size version of Kerplunk. But OH NO again! It is exactly the very kind of endurance challenge that Matt had feared in light of his very slightly injured foot.
However, lest we forget, God is on his side, (not to mention, he's a much, much, much stronger competitor than Sarita) and Matt pulls out yet another Redemption Island victory, despite the entirety of Zapatera tribe cheering hard for Sarita (evidently there really were no hard feelings between Sarita and her former tribemates. Which once again raises the question of why they blindsided her. And why they even voted her out in the first place. Never has an exiled player and the people who stabbed her in the back engaged in such a love fest). Of course, we should remember that Matt also has Former Federal Agent (?) Phillip on his side, who once again applauds Matt for embodying the philosophy of Bushido. With God AND Phillip in his corner, how could Matt have possibly lost?
So Matt, tragically injured foot and all, is back in the game and that's it for Capital One Redemption Island Arena. Seems silly that they'd spend all that money to build a facsimile of a Roman Coliseum and then let it lay idle for the rest of the season. What a waste, right? Well, WRONG. Because obviously when Jeff Probst said at the last reunion show that this season would be Survivor: Redemption Island, he meant it. If he meant that Redemption Island would only be in play for part of the season he would have said "next season will be Survivor: Some Redemption Island" or "Survivor: Half-Redemption Island." But because he said neither of those things and he's a man of his word (and because they want to get the maximum return on their investment), Redemption Island lives on, as it will restart with the next Tribal Council.
Which, we have to admit, we're on the fence about. We were pretty ready to get back to the normal order of things, a Reward Challenge, an Immunity Challenge, a Tribal Council, and than someone goes home for good. It wasn't broken, so we're not quite sure why they saw fit to fix it. Restarting Redemption Island after the merge does certainly does offer some interesting possibilities, but we're still not sold on its necessity.
After the merge it's like Step by Step as the two tribes move into new digs together, with Phillip immediately hitting the bottle (lay off! He has a dry mouth problem! And he's getting treatment for it!). It's time to name the tribe and Rob sees yet another opportunity to embarrass every other player in the game without their knowledge (because they're pretty much all dummies), suggesting they christen the tribe "Murlonio," which is Spanish for "from the sea." Of course, he just made that up, as Murlonio is actually one of "Ambuh's" stuffed animals. Hopefully someone (a Former Federal Agent, perhaps?) will figure out Rob's deceit and call him out. At the very least, at an upcoming reward lunch someone needs to declare "I'm not drinking any fucking Murlonio!" That is our one request and it is not up for debate.
With Matt back in the fold, reconnecting with Andrea and finding common ground with Mike over Krista's bible, Rob quickly realizes that there's a Christian Coalition at work. And, really, Rob is looking for any excuse to send Matt back from whence he came. He never wanted Matt around in the first place, and certainly hoped he wouldn't survive Redemption Island, so Matt's Christian connections just might be what he needs to convince the other members of Ometepe that Matt is still the biggest threat. Then again, Rob realizes that Mike is courting Matt's good graces by quoting the scripture, so maybe Mike is the biggest threat. But, then again, Rob is clearly the man in charge of the players formerly known as Ometepe, so maybe it's time to cut off that animal right at the head.
So one of these dudes needs to win the Immunity Challenge right? Especially when Probst reveals the new individual Immunity Idol necklace and it's super shiny. The challenge? Hold a plate completely still without dropping an increasing number of balls, all while standing on an uneven platform. Clearly, we quickly learn that Phillip was never a waiter. Or, if he was, he was the absolute worst, spastically gyrating his hips like he's either riding a bull or trying to balance himself on a pogo ball, although, to Phillip, that's called rhythm (we know what you're thinking and we agree, Bob Ross would have been excellent at this). But more important than the (Phil) Sheppard is the Christian. Can Matt continue his challenge dominance now that he's back in the game, away from the comfy confines of Baked Tostitos Redemption Island Arena? Well, proving our theory that he survived only because he opposed inferior competitors (besides Russell, natch), Matt goes down midway through the challenge. And as soon as he exits, so immediately does Rob, perhaps only hanging on long enough to make sure Matt didn't win Immunity. Or so it certainly seemed.
It was quickly down to Mike and Natalie, and Mike soon finds out the only thing more difficult than the Iraq war is trying to focus on a challenge while Probst dramatically describes his laser-like focus (Jeff, we love you, but take it down a notch! The man is a veteran, let him concentrate). A fly lands on one of Mike's balls, and a single bead of sweat falls onto his plate, challenging his intense focus. Unfortunately Mike didn't have specially designed silver gloves to catch his perspiration, preventing a high tech alarm from activating, and the winner is Natalie.
Wait, what??? Natalie? That Natalie? The girl who makes Ashley look like the smart one? That Natalie? She's certainly the last person we would have predicted to win the first Immunity Challenge. Of course, it's entirely possible that she just completely zoned out and only snapped to when Jeff declared her the winner. Certainly, she doesn't have much on her mind, so it would have been easy for her to trance-like center her attention. Or, perhaps she saw the shiny new Immunity necklace and knew she had to have it. She certainly looked pleased when Prost placed it around her neck. Just as delighted as my 2-year-old niece when we jangle keys in front of her.
With Natalie's victory Matt, Mike and Boston Rob are all vulnerable as Tribal Council looms. Also at risk is Rob's right-hand man Grant, who the former Zapatera tribe members identify as a potential target since they suspect that his holy leader Rob might have an Immunity Idol. And this is where, we are forced to concede, that the return of Matt from Redemption Island along with the merge is playing big dividends, because it presents more potential outcomes. Rob wants Matt to stick with Ometepe, while Mike wants Matt to join him, offering an Immunity Idol and a spot in the final four. And Matt just wants to uphold his strong Christian morals. But Matt should remember that being the swingman, being the deciding vote can be a place of serious power, but, as we saw last season with Brenda, it's also a precarious position, and you can quickly go from a crown of gold to a crown of thorns. If you're not decisive, if you waver, than the target goes right on your back.
And to Matt's credit, he doesn't waver, at least not initially. Despite the overtures from Mike, Matt decides to adhere to his values and stick with the Ometepe tribe, pledging his allegiance to Rob (which is the second time in this episode a player demonstrates affection for the tribe that voted him or her out. What's with everyone having a crush on his or her former tribe?!). But here's the thing about trying to play a clean, honest, Christian game: it can appear just as dangerous as the deceitful game that Russell plays, because a) it's easy to gain someone's trust if you present a solid moral base, and b) it's hard to beat someone in the final if they've never lied, cheated or manipulated. And this, especially the latter, is what is on Boston Rob's mind going into Tribal Council.
But before we can get to the vote, it's time for some crazy nonsense from Phillip, who had been abnormally quiet for most of the episode. Sporting a new Allen Iverson-esque headband he spews some claptrap about a stench and a parasite (but shockingly nothing about a gorilla OR a lion), much to the delight of his tribe members, specifically the pageant queens. We see here that Phillip has moved from the annoying guy in the freshman dorm to the weird, oblivious guy that people keep around because he's a good for a laugh, but doesn't realize that everyone is firmly laughing at him, not with him. But here's why Phillip might have the last laugh: he's already made it through the toughest part of the game for him. The more annoying you are, the earlier you're likely to be voted out. But Phillip survived that especially treacherous period. And now we see no reason why he won't be around for a while. This is when irritating (or completely useless people) not only survive, but thrive.
Unfortunately for Matt he's not irritating in the slightest. In fact, he's polite, generous, and affable, and everyone seems to really like him. Which is why he's a much bigger threat in Rob's eyes, and why King Rob instructs his disciples (including Andrea, who nonetheless continues to seem infatuated with Matt) to write Matt's name down. And Matt's decision to uphold his deep Christian ideals of honor and loyalty is exactly his undoing, as he casts the lone vote for Steve, while the former Zapatera stick to their plan to vote for Grant (and Ralph needlessly plays his Idol to protect Mike). Which adds up to a tally of one for Steve, five for Grant and seven for Matt, leaving Matt with a ticket back to Redemption Island and David in awe of Boston Rob's genius. Now that, David, is how you lawyer.
"ALWAYS REMEMBER, MATT, LOOSE STRONG CHRISTIAN MORALS SINK SHIPS." – Matthew 22:8
Seth Keim: Weaned on Growing Pains, the Muppets and Mister Salty Pretzels, Seth developed his affinity for pop culture at a young age, lulling himself to sleep with Welcome Back Kotter reruns. At 13, he cut his chops playing Six Degrees of Bacon at Kutshers Sports Academy. He then majored in English and minored in Film Studies at Tufts University, where he was the campus' foremost TGIF scholar. After spending several years producing corporate videos in NYC he moved to LA, played an extra on one episode of The Big Bang Theory, and promptly moved back. Seth resides in Brooklyn and recently purchased a beta fish. Follow him at Jumped The Snark and on Twitter.