Survivor seasons are often remembered for how they end. As a season progresses, the decisions and strategies implemented have a more direct impact on the end result and this means that the post-merge game is often more interesting and memorable. But the pre-merge is an often underrated part of the game where alliances are made and tested, tribes battle against each other for control of the game, and the foundations for success or failure in the end game are built. They can also be the most entertaining, as there are more people and therefore characters and conflict are everywhere. Tribe rivalries can make challenges more meaningful and interesting and with multiple camps to show, the action can be quicker paced and keeps things ticking along. On seasons with new players, their inexperience can make for fun times, and veteran seasons can show returning players to be cut throat right from the beginning. Join Ozlet Nick Chester as he counts down ten seasons that have a pre-merge worth seeing.
Often considered one of the most boring seasons, there is a lot going on before the merge – the real one. Sook Jai’s early domination sees a majority of the attention paid to Chuay Ghan, where there is a lot happening. We get to know Brian and Helen well, even from early on. Ghandia is a great character to watch, even though she is only around for 4 episodes. The whole “grinding” incident makes for a pretty awkward time but is also something that you don’t expect to see on Survivor, and how production chooses to portray this is really interesting.
Clay is often irritated and irritating with female members of his tribe, but is the object of a great choke hold in the “attack zone” challenge. Robb is such a great character over on Sook Jai, giving us many fantastic moments, from his many fights with Shii Ann to his Sting Ray attack; he is just so much fun. Everything is on a massive scale – he is either completely irritated or elated.
There are some slow moments when Stephanie and Jed are voted out, but there is so much other interesting stuff going on that it really doesn’t matter. And the “fake merge” happens this season, which is technically a pre-merge event by its definition. So whilst things do slow down a lot in the post-merge section of the game, the early episodes of Thailand are a lot more interesting than you probably remember.
Another season that is not remembered fondly, South Pacific actually has an incredible pre-merge and is ruined in reputation by Cochran’s flip and the subsequent pagonging of Savaii. There are very few seasons that have such evenly matched tribes all the way to the merge – neither Upolu or Savaii win two challenges in a row. Not only that, but the challenge themselves are very even. The final immunity challenge where Cochran tangles the ropes is really nail biting to watch, especially given that whichever tribe wins is likely to have the advantage going into the merge. And there is the great weight bearing challenge where Dawn outlasts Stacy.
But it isn’t just challenges – camp life is pretty interesting too. It’s easy to just think of both tribes forming a tight majority of five and picking off the outsiders, but the road to do so was surprisingly interesting. Jim’s paranoia with Ozzy leads to a great blindside of Elyse, something not often seen in pre-merge tribal councils. And although player interviews have since busted the story, the Mikayla vote off was portrayed as being a close run thing as well. We of course have Cochran’s break down at the first tribal council, as well as Stacy and Christine both making a big mark before leaving.
And of course there is the whole “Trojan Horse” episode, where Ozzy makes a big strategic move and asks to be voted out in order to win the next Redemption Island duel and get back in the game. Then there is Brandon’s story, which is actually legitimately interesting in the pre-merge before it become overplayed and annoying later in the game. I love his interactions with Coach, who has to handle him and keep Brandon in line. To say there is better stuff here than you remember is an understatement
Although there is technically no “merge” in Palau, Stephenie joining Koror is as good as one and everything that happens before it is pretty much the “pre merge”. And it makes history – for all the wrong reasons if you are a fan of Ulong. Their losing streak is legendary but also quite intriguing as you see traditional end game strategies playing out so early as one tribe dwindles to nothing. Ulong’s ineptness is both hilarious and heart-breaking, and it’s hard not to feel for them.
There are some fantastic personalities amongst this group which understandably get the lions share of screen time in early episodes. James is one of the most underrated funny characters on Survivor and almost everything he says cracks me up. Angie’s story is heart-warming, and Bobby Jon is so full on in almost every way, its just funny.
And of course, there’s Stephenie. This is really her big moment – the first half of the season is really her time to shine, and she is great TV, regardless of how her image may have changed over the years. There are some cool challenges and rewards in this section of the season too, including the jellyfish lake, and one of my favourite challenges from a visual perspective, diving for Saki bottles on a wrecked warship. And yes, there are smatterings of Koror of course too, including Tom’s epic shark killing, Coby’s snarkiness and just how they own Ulong in everything. A lot of Koror’s time is spent on setup for the end game, but you don’t forget they are there and killing it in the challenges.
Any season featuring returning players is likely to be more intense from the start, as they need less time to acclimatise to the conditions and just get straight into playing the game. Heroes vs. Villains is rightly considered one of the best seasons ever, but surprisingly this is mostly due to its (granted, lengthy) pre-merge. The post-merge game is largely a pagonging of the heroes, but everything in the early game is so memorable. The premiere is one of the series’ best episodes. The characters are well introduced and being a two hour show, there is plenty of time to get to know everybody. Although the set up seems to want to fake out viewers into believing the Heroes will take the lead in challenges, its actually the Villains who go on a winning streak, with Boston Rob playing a big role in coordinating the puzzle section of challenges well.
There is a lot more tension in the Heroes tribe than perhaps I expected – James and Stephanie are at each other’s throats and Tom and Colby find themselves ostracised by a tight alliance. There are of course some great tribal councils during this pre merge – the height of which would be the one where Tyson gets voted out.
Say what you will about Russell, but this is a great TV moment. The tribal councils either side of it (Cirie’s boot and Rob’s boot) are also great. This pre-merge is perhaps let down a little by the challenges; when I think of Survivor’s greatest challenges, I generally don’t think of ten pin bowling but its a small issue when the strategy and camp scenes are as much fun as they are. The comedy level is again high, often at Coach’s expense and the whole “banana etiquette” thing at the Heroes tribe is just hilarious. Overall, this is a great run of episodes and these returning players don’t disappoint.
In many ways, Philippines is a strange pre-merge, but still a really interesting one to watch. So much of the story has to be about Matsing, whose four challenge losing streak is actually pretty heart-breaking and portrayed really well by the editors. Episode 4, where Russell goes home is one of my favourite episodes of all time, and is so well done, from the minutes of no dialogue at the start of the episode, to the tense immunity challenge, to Russell’s really sad ending to what was meant to be a redemption season for him. But you also feel for Denise and Malcolm along the way, two very capable players stuck on a tribe of no hopers. Their eventual discovery of the hidden immunity idol before Matsing is disbanded is a fitting cap to their struggle as they later go on to dominate the game.
Tandang never make it to tribal council, so everything that is set up there is never properly paid off, even after the merge, but has to be shown for obvious reasons. Not since Casaya has a tribe been so dysfunctional yet successful in challenges. Kalabaw’s story is quite unusual too, with everyone targeting Penner, only for him to make an alliance with Jeff Kent and Carter. Dayna’s exit is bizarre, and Katie’s underwhelming, but with Penner there to provide commentary, it’s rarely dull.
And this is actually a pretty strange and funny run of episodes, from Zane’s short but fun stint on the show, to Angie and her “cookies”, and Dawson planting one of Jeff on her way out of the game. And let’s not forget the four finger handshake, or Pete framing RC with the idol clue, and Skupin’s many injuries. This was a strange pre merge in many ways, but incidents like that made it very fun to watch all the same.
For such an early season, Marquesas sure does have a crazy start. After what seems a much more intense and dangerous marooning compared to Borneo, we are introduced to two very entertaining tribes, albeit in quite different ways. The Rotu tribe are all business, but appear to be having fun at the same time, apart from Kathy, who starts the season off in a bad spot.
Then we get the Maraamu tribe, a complete mess, but what an entertaining mess they are. From Peter and his holes to “Miss Cleopatra” Sarah, they are a fun bunch. However, there is a lot of strategy in the early episodes too, culminating in the Hunter blindside, which was hugely surprising at the time.
A character like Boston Rob had never been seen before – someone who takes out the alpha male of his tribe to ensure his own power is solidified. The tribal swap changes everything, breaking apart a very close Rotu tribe, and Gabe’s vote off is stunning given how he was the centre of such a dominant tribe just days before. The Maraamu winning streak is such a nice little surprise, with the oldest man and three women dominating the immensely powerful new Rotu tribe.
Gina’s elimination is also really heart-breaking given what a nice and popular person she was both in the game and amongst the audience. The challenges are also really good as well – the episode 6 maze challenge is a favourite, but all the water challenges are especially good too, and of course the fafaru challenge. We also see a lot from our eventual winner in Vecepia, although it is much more subtle in line with her gameplay and shows us exactly why she would end up outlasting everyone.
The Africa pre-merge is really interesting for a variety or reasons. Firstly, it is down to a diverse and dynamic cast, who each bring something unique to the table. Both tribes start clashing early into the game, creating great drama and ensuring that he season gets off to a quick start. At Boran, this is mainly to do with Clarence and the controversy surrounding him, Diane and the can of beans.
At Samburu, things are even tenser with a split occurring between players based on age. This was a unique situation to that point, and something that hasn’t happened all that often since then as well. Seeing a tied vote in episode 3, and having to settle the matter on a trivia quiz was unexpected. The show defiantly benefitted form the young people coming out on top, which created greater drama in the next episode and further down the road too. Linda’s eccentric personality sparked things in the next episode, but it wasn’t until the tribe swap occurs that things get really messy.
The tribe swap was completely unexpected by both players and the audience, and was a total jaw dropper. The reactions of the players tells the story of just how surprising this was, and is followed up by the first challenge ever to be thrown in Survivor – as Ethan leads Boran to lose on purpose, and get rid of Silas. The pre-merge rounds out with Lex, Tom and Kelly trying to hunt out which of the Samburu players has a vote against them, which builds to the Lindsey vote off and all the drama involved there.
The season tapers off somewhat after the merge but the strategic game early on is really intense.There is also much to love in the challenges (the giant boulder rolling or flaming arrows) and they are really well shot too. But one thing about this pre-merge is just how many funny moments there are. From Tom ass-feather, to Frank’s off kilter remarks to basically everything Clarence says from episode 3 onwards. This cast are an underrated bunch of comedians and they make the season really fun to watch again.
Like a bull out of the gate, with one of the best premieres ever followed by a run of episodes that pretty much have everything you could want in a pre-merge section of the game. The unexpected elimination of both David and Garrett got Cagayan off to flyer – along with everything that was J’Tia. The Brains were a train wreck from the very beginning, but watching them self destruct was simply fascinating. Their third visit to tribal council is a heart stopper, as I think most people really wanted Spencer to stick around and somehow he does.
But of course there was plenty of other stuff going on in these first few episodes, with Tony’s spy shack and “this is huge” find of the immunity idol. Tony was not a slow burn, but an explosion of entertainment right from the very beginning. The beauty tribe were also interesting in their own way – Bryce was a funny character for someone gone so early and Morgan also kept things entertaining. The challenges early on were also really cool to watch, the circular maze controlled by ropes was a favourite of mine, an interesting twist on an old idea.
The episodes after the tribe swap also pretty fascinating, as Tony pays his first trip to tribal council and pulls of his first blindside – getting rid of Cliff and paving the way for Lindsey to quit. You know it’s a good pre-merge when even a quit cant dampen the fun. The final tribal council before the merge is arguably the most important, with the remaining Brains suddenly in a power position and deciding to vote out Alexis and hopefully sever any ties the old beauty members might have to LJ and Jeffra. This pre merge is huge, we needed it and it definitely earns its place amongst the top five, baby.
Older seasons will often be criticised for having less strategy or gameplay. This is not an accusation that can be launched at the cast of the Australian Outback, who deliver what I believe is still one of the best pre-season of all time. Production clearly set out to make this season bigger and better than the first, and this is clear from the start with players dropped in the middle of the Outback and sent on a hike to camp, where Debb quickly gets herself in trouble, and gives her famous line about building a shelter out of rocks.
But perhaps the most famous bit of trivia about this episode is the “dog that didn’t bark” – that only one player doesn’t get a confessional – Tina, who ends up winning the season. Kucha are a fun tribe to watch and were most people’s favourite but over on Ogakor, a pretty bitter game of strategy starts playing out early, as Kel gets exposed as potentially having beef jerky and the tribe goes on a losing streak. This causes them to lose the really funny Mad Dog, which is a shame as she was a bit of a one liner machine, and the Ogakor losing streak culminates in the big tied vote in episode 3, where Tina and Keith convince Colby to turn on Jerri, Amber and Mitchell – a decision that will eventually see him go all the way to the end.
This would be a pretty cool episode and really savvy gameplay in a modern season, never mind season 2, and it really is great to watch. Ogakor eventually get a win and this sees the end of Kimmi from Kucha, who was an incredibly big character for the show considering she only is around for 5 episodes. Her fight with Alicia over the chickens is one of the most memorable moments in the show’s run, as well as her worm eating heroics in episode 2.
Then of course is the infamous “trial by fire” episode where Mike Skupin falls in the fire. Mike had been such a big part of the pre-merge, killing a pig and generally being crazy and putting himself in leadership roles. Mike was not exactly appreciated by all his tribe members but they were clearly shaken when he was evacuated from the game in what was undoubtedly the most “real” moment the show has ever had. It was brutal and is still hard to watch but the emotions of the players left behind was real, and his departure created the biggest “what if” moment the show has had. We will never know what would have happened if Kucha made it to the next challenge, and potentially past it as a group of six, but there could very well have been a different outcome. It was a gripping and emotional end to an amazing pre-merge in the Australian Outback.
So much happens in the Pearl Island pre-merge, and almost all of it is amazing. The action kicks off with the unforgettable marooning and shopping trip to the local village, before Drake take the game by the horns and begin to destroy Morgan in every challenge. Morgan were fun to watch in all their ineptness, even after they start to pick it up and win. Savage’s leadership is a much argued point amongst fans – was it inspiring or inept? I think he has his moments and certainly looked to build a close alliance. Shame he didn’t build his shelter a little further away from the ocean.
However, the Drake tribe may have won more challenges but had their own problems. The Jon and Sandra rivalry starts early and never gives up. And of course there is Rupert., His reputation has taken a bit of a hit over the years but in the first few episodes of Pearl Islands, everything he did was larger than life and amazing, from his fishing skills, to stealing shoes to wearing a skirt, all fantastic stuff and made him easily one of the biggest characters to ever be on the show. Jon also creates his villainous character early, by making multiple deals and going to tribal council drunk.
There is so little wasted time during the pre-merge here, with almost everything just so much fun. Even early boots like Trish and Shawn are given a lot of screen time and really developed well. Osten becomes the show’s first quitter, and makes this a very interesting point in Survivor history. The show really committed to the pirate theme, through challenges involving cannons and treasure, but also through camp looting (which also built up a strong rivalry between the tribes) and the clues to hidden treasure. And then there is of course the Outcast twist, which was insanely unfair but also so fitting for the pirate season. It was a surreal moment but ultimately capped the pre-season off in fantastic style and set up the rest of the game perfectly. There is a perfect amount of strategy, inter-tribal politics and great challenges to make Pearl Island the best pre-merge season ever.
What do you think of the top 10? Do you agree? Disagree? Is it in the wrong order or are there seasons that didn’t make the top 10 that you feel should’ve? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!
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