A medical evacuation is always a sombre Survivor episode. The appeal of the show lies in its strategic game, its exciting challenges and its colourful characters, and while all of these facets can bring out real emotion, there’s nothing like an injury to grind it to a halt and remind us of the reality in this reality game-show. Injuries are devastating, and when they’re serious enough to require the evacuation of a castaway, it’s hard not to feel for a player taken out of contention through no control of their own. After pouring so much of themselves into this game, it feels so royally unfair that a split-second moment can send it all up in smoke. But that’s the harsh way of reality.
THE WILD CARD
Yet again, it was impossible to avoid the promotion of this episode which–somewhat tastelessly–advertised an injury at the challenge that could threaten an untimely exit. As such, I found myself practically watching the challenge through my fingers, wincing at every wobble as the castaways leapt from post to post (each unnervingly and unnecessarily high), holding my breath as each castaway swung across the uneven hard ground on a rope swing. It was excruciating to watch, knowing that someone I’ve come to know insofar as their Survivor character was about to be grievously injured. And when it happened to Ross, it was brutal. One slip, a drop and a cry of pain, and that was it.
I don’t like to be hypercritical of the show, which does so much right, but the challenge design is something that needs addressing on Australian Survivor. It is rightfully championed as an international standard in terms of its epic quality and its relentless creativity. But with the past two seasons and the ‘Ninja Warrior’-ification towards high physicality and absurdly grandiose proportions, it has often felt like the show is playing with fire. Many have critiqued the physicality for disadvantaging less physically adept contestants and thus shrinking the pool of talent that can make the endgame (US Survivor icons like Sandra Diaz-Twine or Cirie Fields might have never had a chance if they’d been up against such demanding challenges). This is still a major concern for me (and my non-athletically-gifted self), but the one-upping nature of the challenge design to make it bigger and tougher and more epic is something that could threaten the safety of the game if it’s not kept in check.
Last year, a concrete wall crumbled and fell onto Jenna Austin’s ankle, inflicting an injury that would ultimately contribute to a mercy-kill vote a few episodes later. This year, again, a challenge led to a broken ankle and a medevac. While I have no doubt that the Australian Survivor team are utter professionals, I can’t help but be concerned. Players have been injured all throughout Survivor’s history, most frequently in a freak accident at a challenge, but the challenges should be designed to anticipate points of potential injury and mitigate the risk. In tonight’s challenge, why were those poles so high off the ground–some of them looked taller than the likes of Pia or Abbey–when they could have easily been half the height and still required the same balance and momentum skills to conquer? Why was the rope swing designed over an uneven trough?
In this case, the challenge itself was pretty standard, but the demand to make it epic–bigger, higher, faster–seems like it may have made a physical but simple challenge unnecessarily dangerous. Of course, Ross’ injury was sustained in an unforeseen accident, and even if the course had been designed to be ‘safer,’ he might have still broken his ankle. But I hope that Australian Survivor pulls in a little on the danger element in their challenges going forward, so we don’t see many more medevacs in our future.
But let’s get back to the man at the centre of the story. When it wasn’t table-setting for the merge, tonight’s episode felt like a love letter to Ross, easily one of the most enjoyable characters of the season. His laidback humour made him a joyful presence in every scene he was in, and his madcap sensibilities gave him a wildcard reputation in the game sense. But at the centre of it all, he just seemed to be a good guy who bonded genuinely with his tribemates while still embracing the Survivor experience for everything it had to offer. It’s telling that even the Contenders who never really got to meet him expressed sorrow to see him taken out of the game, each of them saying their goodbyes in a welcome decision by production to allow the castaways to step out of game mode for a moment to farewell one of their own.
It’s interesting that we saw Ross offer himself up to be voted out on two separate occasions as an alternative to voting out someone who clearly was passionate about the game, whether it was claiming ownership of a challenge error at a Champions Tribal or out of sympathy for a sorrowful (albeit, strategically crying) Harry. It’s fitting, then, that Ross’ final act in the game was being taken out in time to save one of the new Contenders from an unfortunate fate at Tribal Council.
Yet it’s still devastating to lose Ross. While he seemed to be playing a straightforward and honest game, I suspect that his more reckless side might have emerged at the individual merge game. His playful relationship with Harry (and his fascination with the ice-cream man’s socks) might have amounted to nothing in the pre-merge, but I would not have been surprised to see Rosco go full “Mad Dog” when the game stepped up a notch. It’s disappointing to lose such an unpredictable player on the cusp of the game phase where those tendencies can shine. But even if he had stayed the path with a straightforward Champions-strong allegiance, I imagine he would have remained a delight in his role as the wacky uncle of the tribe. So peace out, Ross, we’ll miss you!
Nevertheless, Ross’ exit leaves the Champions in a curious position. The numbers now stand six Champions against six Contenders, which will make the merge vote critical. Each side has shown their cracks, and it looks set to be a battle that will be fought on more fronts than the Champions/Contenders divide. Without Ross, the Champions have lost a close ally–and this is particularly true for Abbey, Janine, and Pia who saw him as their fourth musketeer. While Ross’ exit doesn’t completely overturn the game dynamics, the removal of a player who would almost certainly have been otherwise safe does make for an intriguing wrinkle.
Without a Tribal Council, the strategic side of this episode is less prominent, but not wholly forgotten. However, rather than focusing on the narrative of one vote, it had the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the future, focusing on two new alliances forged in waning moments of the pre-merge. The first was the simple but promising alliance between Luke and Baden. Luke and David have hustled their way through the post-swap, but with it blatantly clear that Andy had tried and failed to throw the challenge (hilariously contrasted in the show with Andy obliviously complimenting himself for his ‘subtle’ attempt), Luke needed to ensure he had allies if history were to repeat and Andy succeed next time.
Luke’s pitch was stellar, focusing on the value of an unlikely and unpredictable alliance, and Baden seemed to eagerly accept the offer, noting that he’d loved watching Luke play the first time around. For all of his showmanship, Luke’s strength has always been in his genuine social connections and the ability to foster loyalty through relationships. If in doubt, look to Ross’ final words where he, much like ET, wished his best to Luke to take home the crown! The fantastic element to Luke’s game is that the bonds he forms aren’t based on convenience or manipulation, they’re real, and Baden seemed to sense that.
Baden hasn’t found a number one ally this entire game, despite infiltrating his way into the power alliance led by Daisy and Shaun, and Luke seems like a perfect fit for him. It’s impossible to shake the father-son dynamic that was presented in a recent secret scene that wholesomely showed Luke teaching Baden to fish, and I think this dynamic could take this pair far. They both have a level of underestimation about their capabilities in the game, and this kind of unexpected cross-Tribal alliance could yield dividends, particularly heading into a numerically even merge.
But the more shocking unlikely alliance was the truce occurring over on the new Contenders beach. After three rounds of all-out-war, Dirty Harry and The Godmother came to a mutual agreement. I have to hand it to Harry. I may be obligated to root for his success on account of him being my pre-season winner pick, but I found myself worried that his Idol shenanigans and overt gameplay could only get him so far. His strategic decisions had seemed somewhat scattershot, often contradictory or unnecessary, and when he tried a more focused tactic in attempting to sway the Champions on the bottom of the heap at the last Tribal, he’d come up short. Yet tonight, he took a different tactic, and miraculously, it seemed like it was working.
While he continued to stoke the Champions’ paranoia by dashing off on another Idol hunt, he also made time to make amends in his social game and found a spare moment to sit down with Janine, offering a pitch to the shark. They could lay down their weapons and work together, bringing each other into the merge as savvy allies. He pitched that with his game instincts, he could be a much greater asset than the likes of someone like Simon, a challenge threat and a nice, unassuming fellow but one who lacked the killer instinct of great Survivor player. And to my surprise, Janine seemed to be sold on the pitch!
On the one hand, Harry’s suggestion makes sense. You want allies who you can work effectively with, and if this is a chance to join forces against mutual enemies, then isn’t that a beneficial tactic? But it still relies on trust–something Janine herself voiced some doubt over. After all of his antics targeting her, could she really trust that he’d bury the hatchet? It was a risky agreement, but in Survivor, it rarely behooves you to say ‘no,’ so I applaud Janine’s decision to accept Harry’s offer. At worst, he betrays her like she expects him to and hopefully she’s guarded against it. At best, she neutralises a threat against her, weaponises her new ally against her opponents at the impending merge, and his bombastic reputation might even make him a meat shield.
Of course, this naturally flowed into the pre-Tribal discussion that ultimately amounted to nothing. With Harry on the table as a potential ally and Ross’ future in the game uncertain, Janine approached Pia about instead voting for Simon. He was a Champion, but what did he bring to the table moving forward? Surprisingly, Pia seemed to be on that wavelength already, and they quickly arrived at a new plan to throw an old Champion under the bus. Abbey was understandably uneasy with this new plan, emotionally reluctant to vote against her childhood hero, but to her credit, she didn’t refuse to go along with it, except to say that she wouldn’t write his name down (which, given the numbers in the tribe, wouldn’t be a dealbreaker).
But was this the right decision? After spending two Tribals going after Harry, including throwing one to get him out, why not finish the job and go into the merge with a simple Champions majority? While I’ve criticised the Contenders for eating their own post-swap, I do think there are good times to turn on your own. And in this case, I believe that this could have been a good opportunity for Janine, Pia, and Abbey to take out Simon. He was a potential threat on account of his challenge strength and general likability, but he appears to be bringing little to the table on the strategic front. He’s also relatively unconnected, so there’s no one to retaliate on his behalf or be blindsided by the flip, thus mitigating the kind of animosity plaguing the Contenders after Daisy, John and Baden flipped on Andy, Sarah, Hannah, and Sam. The circumstances of this particular decision would also keep Harry in the game as a player who would surely draw a bigger target than them and who, if he was honest in wanting to start afresh and work with them, could be a skilled asset. Yet it also ran the risk of leaving Harry in the game, who might just run back to the Contenders the first chance he had.
It was a risky play, but if I had to make the call, I think it would have been better for the Champions to finish the job and vote out Harry. As a proven gameplayer and liar, there was next to no reason to trust his word, and getting rid of him over Simon would also ensure a clear majority heading into the merge. Simon would likely remain an innocuous player, and that would make him relatively easy to remove at any point in the game, whereas Harry’s unpredictable antics would make him a harder cockroach to kill.
But given it never eventuated due to Ross’ medevac, it’s hard to pass too much judgment on the plan. For all we know, Simon was only being discussed insofar as the secondary target as a contingency plan in case Harry had dug up a third consecutive Idol–a possibility that certainly jives with Abbey’s casual request to not write Simon’s name down. Regardless, this cautious new alliance between the power trio of Janine, Pia, Abbey, and Harry–a player so notorious that the opposing tribe were openly shocked to see him survive last Tribal and correctly guessed it was only because of an Idol–promises to make for an interesting merge tomorrow night.
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR…
And what an exciting merge it will be! The numbers might be 6-6 based on the original Tribal divide, but the last 13 episodes have revealed a plethora of fractures and alliances that could rearrange in all manner of ways. There’s the Contenders alliance helmed by Daisy, Shaun, and John, but Baden’s allegiances are split between them and his new bond with Luke. Andy floats loosely in the middle, vacillating between wanting to work with Luke & David and trying to throw a challenge to get rid of them, making him a complete wild card. Similarly, Harry remains a loose cannon, for, despite his promised alliance to the Champion women, they have had no opportunity to seal their pact with a vote. The Champion women, too, lie at the centre of an interesting web where they could easily reunite with David & Luke, keeping a loyal Simon in tow, but lest we forget that Janine attempted to throw David under the bus not all that long ago by telling Shaun about the fake Idol. And now David has a new Idol, and at this point, the only one still in the game.
It really is a fascinating group of players. Almost universally, these players have been given focused stories over the first half of the season, making them a compelling cast of characters, and better yet: players. Almost all of the dozen remaining castaways have proven a willingness to play Survivor for what it is–blindsides and all. In fact, I’d be willing to say that this crop rivals the iconic 2017 season for just how many of its merge-makers have appeared as legitimate competitors. While I don’t want to set my expectations too high, I’m thrilled by the composition of the 2019 merged tribe, and I hope they can finish this fantastic season strong with some superb–or at the very least, entertaining–gameplay.