We’re nearly halfway through Survivor‘s 43rd season, and according to the game’s host, things are about to get spicy.
“Post-merge is when the game gets even more dangerous because now you’re on your own,” Jeff Probst tells TVLine. “Deeply loyal alliances can be a powerful asset or a dangerous liability.”
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In last week’s episode, the players learned they weren’t quite merged just yet, and after a brutal immunity challenge loss, only Cody, Elie, Cassidy, James, Owen and Sami were vulnerable to the vote. Elie then felt the target shift toward her after Gabler informed everyone that she went through his bag earlier in the game (she didn’t). Unwilling to rat out her gal pal Jeanine, Elie became the sixth person voted out of Survivor 43, missing the official merge by just a single day. (Be sure to check out a full recap, along with our weekly exit interview.)
In our midseason check-in, we asked Probst all about smashing the Hourglass twist, forcing the players to earn the merge, and finding the right balance between playing hard and playing yourself right out of the game. (Hi Lindsay!)
But that’s not all! We also have an exclusive sneak peek from Wednesday’s episode, in which a piece of tree mail causes the castaways’ heads to spin. But will this new wrinkle in the game affect an immunity challenge or a reward? Watch the scene by pressing PLAY on the video above, then see what else Jeff had to say about Season 43 in our Q&A below.
TVLINE | Now that we’ve seen the new era’s “earn the merge” episode both with and without the Hourglass, which version do you prefer and why? Were there any creative upsides to nixing the Hourglass for 43?
JEFF PROBST | When we birthed this new era of Survivor, one of the things we focused on was the idea of forcing players to earn it every day, every step of the way. So we went with smaller tribes, which makes Tribal more dangerous. We added penalties when you lose, we took away the food and we changed the merge by adding a merge challenge. That’s really at the heart of the “earn the merge” twist. You don’t just “make” the merge anymore, it’s now another obstacle you have to overcome. So it really isn’t about which version of the merge we prefer. The Hourglass twist was just one of many new wrinkles we put into Seasons 41 and 42, and we had no problem losing it for Survivor 43. What you can count on seeing in the future is different ways you have to earn your spot into the merged tribe. We like that element a lot and want to continue to explore new ways to do it.
TVLINE | A great Survivor player swings for the fences, but in a case like Elie’s, playing hard was part of her downfall. What advice do you have for future players on how to find that sweet spot between playing hard, but not too hard?
This is a great question because it’s unanswerable. The difference between watching at home and actually playing is that when you’re at home you have all the information. You know what people feel about each other, you know who has an advantage, you know who has lost their vote, you know who is loyal. When you’re playing, you typically know very little and you can’t trust it anyway! So you are playing based solely on instinct. The reason you have to “swing for the fence” is because today’s jury will not award the million dollars to someone who played safe. They don’t respect it, especially if they are on the jury in part because of their own risky big moves.
In Elie’s case, she was playing hard because she was playing to win. Going through Gabler’s bag was risky, but it gave her valuable information. Taking on Gabler in a battle of alliances was also risky, but had it worked, she would still be in the game and the audience would be saying, “Damn, Elie is playing such a strong game!”
My advice is always the same. Play the first time as though you’re playing for the second time. We have a lot of players who have never won, but are in the Survivor Hall Of Fame, and not a single one of them has ever said “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” The great players play hard knowing it could fail. Ninety-five percent of all players lose this game. You can’t carefully craft a game plan and follow it step by step. This isn’t chess. This is human poker. And every other player is doing the same thing you’re doing. They’re trying to figure out how to manage the vote without ever being too big of a target.
It’s a very difficult game to play but there’s one thing you can count on: If you “play it safe” and try to avoid any risky moves, you will never win. Never.
TVLINE | Vesi helped Baka finish an immunity challenge puzzle: What did you make of that in the moment, and is it smart for tribes to try and connect like that before the merge?
As it was happening, I had no time to have a thought about whether I thought it was smart or even how the Coco tribe was reacting. When we’re in a challenge, I’m focused on a lot of things and it’s all happening so fast there is no time to even consider the impact of a move like that. In fact, I often don’t remember a lot of the challenge because I’m laser focused on the here and now.
But philosophically speaking, I don’t have an opinion about whether it’s a good move or not, because there is no way to know. It goes back to the question of Elie playing too hard. It’s pure conjecture until the vote. Sure, it’s always easy to backseat drive any decision in the game. That’s why it’s so fun to watch Survivor! You’re always right! But it’s impossible for a player to know in the moment if this is a million dollar move or a million dollar mistake. And this circles back to why juries respect big moves, because they’re risky.
I will say, what complicates Vesi helping Baka is the fact that we’re now getting into the jury phase of the game, so every single person will have a say in who wins the million dollars. So even if they do team up and take out Coco, those Coco members will all have a vote in the end. It’s why this format is so fun. With every decision comes a new problem.
TVLINE | So who’s playing the best game right now?
Come on now, do you really think I’m gonna have an answer to this question?! I think there are a lot of players doing a really good job of finding a spot from which they can assess what their next move should be. That’s what I’m seeing right now. People positioning themselves moment by moment in an ever-changing game. That’s what Elie was doing with Jeanine. They were trying to stake a big position in the game. This forced Gabler to make his own decision in response. Does he lay low and continue to play dumb or does he take a stand? And then, those moves create new consequences and new problems for all the other players, forcing them to alter their game play accordingly.
We spend a lot of time trying to find players to put into the game and when we get it right, they are all playing hard. That’s what I’m seeing this season. There are so many players who could win the game and that’s how they’re playing… to win.
TVLINE | Now that the merge is officially here, what can you tease about the game’s second half?
Post-merge is when the game gets even more dangerous because now you’re on your own. Deeply loyal alliances can be a powerful asset or a dangerous liability. That’s an insane dilemma. Who can you trust when there is no one to trust because there is only one winner. By design, the game gets much more brutal post-merge. You’ve lived with and relied on each other for so many days and now you have to betray each other in order to stay alive.
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