I wasn’t alone in being disappointed at the timing of the Exile Beach twist when it was announced in last night’s episode. It’s one of the better non-elimination concepts that Australian Survivor has utilised in its history, and the show does appear to be making an intentional effort to inform the players of what is about to happen before they vote, which is a drastic improvement. However, I couldn’t help but feel like this was way too late in the game for this particular twist.
We’re at the pointy end of the game where ambitious players are more likely to make riskier plays or flip on their allies in the name of increasing their own chances at winning. The Final 7 is one of the big ones—it was the vote where Flick betrayed her Day 1 ally Brooke, it was the vote that saw Luke, the King of the Jungle, dethroned in his first go-around. For such an important stage of the game, a twist like Exile Beach, and its one-off Redemption Island/Edge of Extinction-esque duel to return to the game, is one that encourages conservative gameplay. Why would you make a big move when you know that the person you’d be betraying could be back with a vengeance the very next day?
I was resigned to the thought that tonight’s episode would see the Champions hold tight to their numbers and pick off Harry or Baden, thus ensuring that at least one of them or Daisy would lose the duel and the returnee would likely be sent right back out the door tomorrow night. And yet, as Australian Survivor is wont to do, it completely obliterated my expectations as Luke and Abbey pulled the trigger to turn against the core Champions alliance, blindsiding Simon (and Janine and Pia) in one fell, unexpected and to-be-continued swoop.
While I’m still not convinced it was the right time for Abbey or Luke to make this explosive move, I am so grateful that we narrowly avoided the twist stifling gameplay. Not only did it make for great TV tonight, but the ramifications of the move will undoubtedly ripple throughout the endgame, creating a lot more uncertainty as we look to final days of the season.
Tonight, Dirty Harry was up to his old tricks. He skated through the end of the pre-merge by the skin of his teeth thanks to two timely Idols and Ross’ medevac. But there has never been any doubt that Harry has constantly worked the game. If anything, he’s had a tendency to overplay, but the core of his strategy has usually been sound. He’s often shown to have a decent read on the social politics, and his tactics like labelling Janine “The Godmother” to dub her the Big Bad of the Champions have had a long-lasting impact. But his short term strategies have often been foiled by his fellow players’ reluctance to make a risky move or his own shortcomings in his own social game limiting his ability to make a strategic move without trust.
But in this episode, somehow, he pulled off the impossible. The Champions, up 5 against 2, had very little incentive to take a risk. Not only could they comfortably split the vote, but with Exile in play, they could vote out a Contender and ensure that the status quo would barely change once a Contender returned to the game the next day. Even for those amenable to a flip would seemingly be more hesitant to fire off a shot at one of their own, knowing that it wouldn’t necessarily be the killing blow. And yet…
Harry hit the ground running to recruit two of the Champions to flip—ideally against his long-term nemesis Janine. He began with his fellow Lost Boy in Luke. There has been a growing rapport between the two over the last few episodes, in large part due to Baden’s work to build and maintain a working relationship across tribe lines with Luke. Without that growing sense of trust between these three players, I doubt the move would have come through. Thanks to that fostered relationship, Luke’s increasing consciousness of his exclusion from the core of the Champions alliance and his natural inclination to stir the pot, there was an opportunity, and Harry seized upon it. He quickly secured a plan with Luke to turn the tables on Janine, and the pair agreed on which other Champion they needed to flip. Simon was too straight-forward and loyal—and we saw last night that he was willing and eager to vote out Luke—so their only other choice was Abbey.
Getting Luke might have been easy as he was already contemplating working with the Contenders, but Abbey was the challenge. Without her, there was no plan, so she had to be convinced perfectly. And perfect it was as Harry and Baden sat down with Abbey on the beach. The conversation began casually, but the pair turned the conversation to Abbey’s endgame plans. You could practically see the concerned exasperation on Harry’s face as Abbey suggested she could stick with her plan and ride the numbers and Immunity to the end. But Harry pointedly, and persuasively, questioned how risky that plan would be. Wouldn’t Janine and Pia go to the end together, putting Abbey’s whole game in the balance based on that Final Immunity? That was risky and passive… but what about risky and active? What about making a big move? Taking out a big player like Janine would not only open the door for Abbey in the Final Two, but it would give the Jury what they wanted and earn a name for herself.
It’s the kind of rhetoric that can be thrown around a lot on Survivor: make this big move and build up your resume. Sometimes it’s accurate, and sometimes it isn’t. But it certainly caught Abbey’s attention to the point of her not only considering it but adapting the plan herself and following through with it at a suboptimal time in the game. While the decision was ultimately Abbey’s, Harry was the instigator, managing to pull off a move that none of the Contenders could achieve before him. He played it perfectly, continuing to encourage Abbey to make the risky move and even when she switched up the plan on him—changing the target from Janine to Simon—he pushed back gently, but ultimately bent to her wishes, recognising that the flip would divide the Champions regardless.
Harry also owned his situation at Tribal Council without giving anything away, openly acknowledging his minority position and preaching for Champions to make a move, thereby bolstering his own track record when it became apparent that his plans had played out exactly as he wanted. I didn’t expect to see Dirty Harry reach the endgame, but not only has he defied those odds, but this episode demonstrated that in spite of his ridiculous fake son lies and overly risky tendencies, he is truly a dangerous player.
While it appeared that Harry was the one driving this vote, Baden’s role cannot be ignored. His connection to Luke is surely foundational to their ability to team up, and he was an active part of the conversations with Abbey. Baden, too, played his role at Tribal and at just the right time too, as he narrowly avoided the trip to Exile—iconically and un-ironically as the challenge beast sent to finish Daisy off and ensure she didn’t return to the game in a peak to one of the season’s longest-running subplots. Baden is certainly a dark horse, and at this stage, I feel like he’d be hard-pressed to beat many of his remaining tribemates in the Final Two, but with 11 days still left on the clock, he could surprise as he comes further out of his shell.
ALL ABOUT TIMING
So let’s get to the main headline here: Abbey decided to flip against Simon. But was it the right move? And was it the right time? As with everything in Survivor, it’s complicated. It seems Harry was right that Abbey was the third in the Champion women’s trio; we’ve seen Pia and Janine both refer to each other as their number one ally on multiple occasions. And to this point, Abbey has played a pretty subdued game in front of the Jury. She’s not always followed the numbers—she was instrumental in establishing the power structure of the original Champions when she turned on the Sporty Seven and teamed up with Janine, Pia, Luke, and David. Unfortunately, half the Jury didn’t see that first hand. Thus, it certainly behooves Abbey to make a bold play, and by targeting Janine, one of her closest allies and a massive threat who is perceived as the one calling the shots, she would rapidly establish herself as a mover and shaker with a big head on her wall.
I really wish we could have seen how this vote would have played out without Exile Beach in play. It certainly felt like Abbey was all-in on the plan to vote out Janine until she considered the blowback associated with Exile—where Janine could win the challenge and come back into the game the next day with a vendetta against her. It’s almost like a half-measure—a betrayal without the full benefit of eliminating a significant threat but with added repercussions. And this is where the conservative nature of the twist reared its head, prompting Abbey to instead shift the vote to a new target in Simon.
It’s poetic that Abbey was lamenting the very thought of writing Simon’s name down pre-merge as she balked at the idea of voting out her childhood hero, but now driven by an increasing determination to stand up and make her move, she was willing to cast him to the wayside. So I have to first give immense credit to Abbey for getting her head in the game and making this call. But there was an interesting method to the madness, as she rationalised that loyal, quiet, straightforward Simon would be a lot less worrisome if he returned, compared to Janine who would undoubtedly come for her head. It’s fair reasoning, but I’d argue that betraying Janine and Pia in any way, whether it’s a direct attack at them or a blindside dismantling another cog in their machine, will ultimately have the same effect. Betrayal is betrayal, and even with the wrinkle of the Exile twist, I can’t help but feel like taking out Simon was avoiding a half measure with another half measure.
And honestly, I’m not sure that this move will help Abbey’s game in the long run. She’s put herself at odds with Janine and Pia by betraying them, and although her new coalition with Luke, Baden, and Harry has the numbers now, can she be confident that they wouldn’t throw her to the wolves if it saves themselves? This could be particularly worrisome if Daisy is the one to return. All of a sudden, her team of four becomes a team of five, and within that five, the Contenders would hold a majority, making her vulnerable from both sides.
That’s not even discussing the timing. It really feels like this move could have, and perhaps should have, waited until the real Final 7 vote after Daisy or another Contender in Harry or Baden returns from Exile. It would have been practically the same configuration as it was on this vote, but it would have been a clean execution. Whether they still targeted Simon or went for the jugular with Janine, there would be no chance of them coming back into the game again if they could have just waited for one more round. So while it might have been a big move for Abbey, it could just as likely be her last.
Honestly, I feel similarly for Luke, though I think he’ll be able to avoid the flack that Abbey will catch for flipping. He was publicly discussed as a target at the Shaun vote, with Janine calling an audible to switch the vote. He’s openly aware of his position on the fringes of the Champs, and it seems that he might be more readily forgiven, or at least understood, for his move. Nevertheless, it still seems dangerous to make a move this big when it’s not permanent, and the variable of Exile Beach could come back to bite—whether it’s Daisy, who is fiercely loyal to the Contenders, or Simon, who had already been looking for an opportunity to target Luke. Either way, it’s not great for the King of the Jungle, but I do have to commend Luke for surviving at least one Final 7 vote, beating out his first season placement. As the only returnee on the season, and one with a notorious reputation, that is an impressive performance!
BURYING THE BODIES
But what of Simon, Pia, and Janine—the minority blindsided by the vote. After Pia pulled out an Immunity win, their confidence appeared to be soaring, and Survivor has oft told the tale of the overconfident falling. It’s a challenging position, particularly for Janine and Pia. Being at the core of a loyal alliance is a perfect path to the end, and while it may not always make for exciting television, there’s a reason the strategy remains a fixture of the game. Yet it makes it difficult to manage in camp and at Tribal. How can you be honest about wanting to stay strong with your alliance without alienating your #3, #4, #5 allies such that they decide to look for greener pastures and cut you out of the equation?
To this point, Janine and Pia have navigated it almost flawlessly. Janine’s candidness at Tribal has been a concern, as it threatened to out her as The Godmother of the alliance she so actively sought to portray as a democracy. But otherwise, it’s felt as though they might be able to ride their numbers far enough into the game that it would be too late for anyone to make a move against them without the numbers on their side. But tonight marked the first time the pair were truly caught off guard and the first time since the early days of the season that they’ll be in the apparent minority. Being the underdog is a whole different experience, and I’m thrilled to see this pair of very savvy and capable Survivor players navigate their way back out of danger and grapple with their now-fractured alliance with Abbey.
On the other hand, Simon exits the main game as he lived—mostly silent, mostly loyal, and just kind of there. He wasn’t wholly without an interest in the game, particularly as he latched onto the plans to vote out Luke, as he recognised him as a dangerous competitor and a threat to win in equal measure. Yet Simon seemed to lack the initiative to get things done. There’s a chance he could have forced his hand to vote out Luke by taking action to team up with the Contenders at the last vote, but instead, he stuck by the Champions, and ultimately that kind of safe gameplay made him a sitting duck. I’m disappointed we didn’t get to see more of Simon and his perspective on the game, but as Harry articulated in his voting confessional, there’s only so much you can do when a player doesn’t take the hint to take their game into their own hands.
COMING BACK AROUND
So then perhaps I can’t be too hard on Luke and Abbey for making the ambitious play when the opportunity was presented to them. It might not have been flawless, and I still think that they should have taken the full measure and targeted Janine if they were going to make this flip, but at least they were trying something. Best of all, they managed to pull it off before they got got, and that kind of self-preserving gameplay is what can make Survivor so epic, confronting and challenging.
But now we’re set to do it all over again as we face yet another Final 7 tomorrow night. With Abbey and Luke’s big play tonight, the table is re-set, and regardless of who comes back from the Exile Duel, I feel like we’ll be in for some fireworks, and hopefully, an exciting race to the finish!