'Survivor' Host Jeff Probst Breaks Down Season 35's Massive Merge

The host, executive producer and showrunner also says the word "deuces" five times.
Courtesy of CBS

Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter's Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers regular season coverage! Every week, we're bringing you exit interviews with the latest person voted out, recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg and weekly check-ins with executive producer and host Jeff Probst. Bookmark our season 35 one-stop shop to make sure you don't miss out on any of it.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for season 35, episode seven.

In a future season of Survivor, Jeff Probst just might update one of his most famous catchphrases with some Joe Mena flair: "The tribe has spoken. Deuces."

OK, it's not going to happen. But the word of the episode (at least for fans of Joe, the hustling Healer who once wore a Heroes-blue buff) is very much in play in the latest round of our weekly column with Probst. Feel free to blame yours truly for the incoming avalanche of the word "deuces," having offered bonus points to the veteran Survivor showrunner and executive producer for inserting Joe's signature sendoff into our discussion of the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers merge. Note to future self: never promise Probst bonus points for anything ever again.

On a more serious note, this week's conversation takes on one of the biggest moments of this or any Survivor season: the merge, the occasion that marks the end of the tribal phase of the game. More often than not, we see two tribes collapsing into one. For season 35, three tribes combined to form one single 12-person unit, with each and every remaining Hero, Healer and Hustler on the board now fully immersed in the individual portion of the game. 

Season 35 continues a recent Survivor trend of merging with a large number of castaways still in the game, a development with a very simple explanation, according to Probst: "We have gone to bigger merges because we want to keep more people on the jury, because that keeps more of our favorites in the show, deuces, and it makes Final Tribal Council more entertaining to have your favorite personalities asking questions. So, in order to be a legit jury member, deuces, you need to have spent at least a day or two with everybody left in the game. So ... that's why!" 

(That's two "deuces," for those keeping score.)

"It impacts the crew in different ways," Probst continues, weighing in on how the big merge impacts the way Survivor is filmed. "Most notably, deuces, having 12 people on one beach is crazy tough on our producing and camera teams. Having to design challenges that can be run by 12 individuals and still be covered by our director/camera teams is also tough. Deuces. But because we work with the best team, we always figure it out. Having a big group at Tribal also has pros and cons. For me the big plus is, deuces, that you have more great people to go to for story, and the downside is it's hard to get everybody into the flow."

Five deuces total. Luckily, it ends there, even if there's still one more matter at hand: discussing the departure of Jessica Johnston from the game. 

The second Healer eliminated from the season, Jessica was targeted by the combined Heroes-Hustlers alliance, due to her social and strategic closeness with Cole Medders, among the most physically formidable opponents still in the game, as well as someone who has been rubbing players the wrong way with his eating habits. Unfortunately for Jessica, her close affiliation with Cole was enough to attract the votes this round, knocking her out of the game right before Survivor enters the jury phase.

Here's what Probst said about Jessica during the preseason: "Jessica came in, and she's so charming. She shares her story of her life. It's complicated, and inspirational, and she's a caregiver, and she's really kooky in the greatest way, because she's aware of her kookiness. And she self-examines in front of you. She'll go, 'Oh, I don't know, let me think about that for a minute. You're making me think about something I haven't thought about before. I gotta think about this. Wow, that's really crazy!' But it's like watching a mad scientist work their own stuff out right in front of you, and she's not embarrassed about it. She's really open. If you last long enough for people to see her truth, I think she's going to become really attractive, not just physically, but as a human. I think a lot of people are going to really feel like there's a vulnerable, honest, authentic human. I want to watch her play."

And here's how he views Jessica now: "Yep. That still sums her up. I think that's what we saw. She opened up in front of us and talked about something very vulnerable — love and intimacy. I think Jessica is going to continue to grow as a result of this experience. I think she will make a case to play again in a 'second chance' season and I think she'd be strongly considered."

If I may suggest a title for that second Second Chance season? Survivor: Deuces.

Follow THR.com/Survivor for more weekly chats with Probst, exit interviews with the castaways as they're voted off the island, and recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg.

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