Last week, Australian Survivor promised us the best endgame in the show’s three-year history. It seems like a hyperbolic claim, particularly given last year’s outstanding offering, but perhaps there’s truth to the story. Tonight’s episode might not have been the greatest Survivor episode of all time, but it drove the wedge deeper into the cracks developing on Koro Savu, demonstrating that there are a lot more moving parts to this merge tribe than we were led to believe – and that could give us a stellar run to the finish line.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we come back to tonight’s episode and a downfall that seemed to come out of nowhere. As one Champion crashed to the ground, another solidified their power and the rest of the tribe found themselves scrambling for options. It was an exciting and unpredictable episode, buoyed by an infamous endurance challenge, a foiled coup and the promise of fireworks to come.
Samuel was such a surprise coming into the season. As a standout “nerd” in a tribe full of sports stars, it seemed likely that he would struggle to find his place in the fold. Yet from the get-go, his natural charisma and snarky humour endeared him to his tribe and a firm alliance that gave him power and direction in nearly every pre-merge vote he attended. However, things took a turn for the worst at the merge when his allies turned on Lydia against Samuel’s wishes, and it was a betrayal of trust that derailed Sam’s confidence in his alliance and fuelled his paranoia, ultimately leading to him talking his way out of the game. In the end, his gift for the gab was both his boon and his curse.
But how did we get there? At the start of tonight’s episode, Samuel seemed to be in a pretty solid position to make a move. He was distrustful of his “old alliance” of five, helmed by Mat, and suspected that he was being replaced as Mat continued to offer olive branches to the Contenders and the Champions outside of the alliance. Recognising Mat as a dangerous threat and a player with a tight grip on the game, Samuel’s desire to flip the game on its head and build a new majority with himself at the centre was a smart move.
What’s more, it seemed like he should have had the numbers to pull it off. Fresh off losing his ride-or-die, Benji was looking for someone new and the two seemed to hit off a natural rapport with a shared strategic interest. For both of them, executing an assassination of Mat would open the game up for them. Similarly, Shonee and Fenella were outnumbered and adrift, looking for any route that could advance them in the game. His pitch to them seemed solid, focusing on eliminating physical threats to open up the game for any of them to have a chance at an Immunity win in the endgame, and it appeared as though they were open to the plan.
Right there were four, and with a wealth of other Champion bottom-feeders to choose from (Brian, Shane and Monika among them), as well as Sharn, similarly disgruntled by the move against Lydia, it seemed like options would abound. But they didn’t – it looked like Samuel altogether avoided approaching Brian and Shane, perhaps rightfully believing he couldn’t trust them, and Sharn seemed to have wriggled her way back to Mat’s side despite her frustration with his decision to follow through on Shane’s plan against Lydia. So he was left with Monika, but in the scene we saw of Samuel’s pitch to her, his intensity put her off-guard. Appearing flustered and panicky does not convey a stable ally, and Monika was right to be wary.
Yet the plan was foiled further by an untimely Immunity victory from Mat that turned the plan to his right-hand man and birthday boy in Steve. While cutting out the support below the kingpin is an incredibly effective strategy, it’s harder to pitch compared to the clean shot against the big threat. And I wonder whether the 5-strong crew Samuel had in his corner were actually on board with the Plan B. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to matter as Samuel proceeded to allow his own paranoia completely unravel and decimate his game.
Wanting to try to keep up appearances with his old alliance, Samuel checked in with Mat and freely admitted to throwing his name around when he’d talked with Shonee and Fenella. It’s always risky to throw this kind of confession out there, much less to your preferred target’s face, and Samuel quickly found himself on the defensive. Mat pressed him on what else Sam had said, eventually discovering that Samuel had attempted to give Lydia a subtle prompt to ‘pull her head in’ in the lead up to her blindside, betraying his disagreement with the alliance’s plan. It seems like such a minor grievance, but the molehill became a mountain, prompting Mat’s trust in Samuel to completely fall to pieces. Like a psychic seeing a possible future and trying to stop it, only for their actions to lead to that very future, Samuel’s suspicions of his old alliance’s trust in him seemed to manifest into actual distrust.
From there, it seemed like his goose was cooked, particularly after he spotted Benji talking with Mat and panicked that a supposed ally was talking to the enemy (an ironic assumption, given Samuel himself had just spoken to Mat to try to keep up the illusion). In response, he tried to burrow back into the safety of the Champions alliance by throwing Benji under the bus and asserting that Benji had told him that Mat’s alliance were turning on him. Although it may have undone some of Benji’s work to earn Mat’s trust, it was too little too late. Sharn had been able to cosy back in because she had immediately set to work reforging her alliance with Mat; at this point, Samuel had played the middle too much, and his erratic play was leaving his tribe wary of his actual intentions.
Heading into Tribal, I was unsure if Samuel would be able to escape his fate, but as he talked more and more, openly debating who had betrayed who, it felt like the momentum naturally built against him, sending him to the Jury bench via a begrudging hug from Jonathan. And although we saw much of Samuel’s downfall unfold over the course of tonight’s episode, it still feels like we missed a lot of the story. For someone so naturally entertaining, Samuel seemed to be relegated to the background throughout the season, and for someone who appeared to have a pretty key role in early votes, his strategic contributions were under-reported. Even his relationship with Lydia was hardly seen and it was critical to the fallout that ended his game. Yet despite pieces being missing from the puzzle, tonight’s episode was a compelling downfall story – but it’s a shame it came at the expense of one of the quirkier TV characters.
Although tonight largely chronicled Sam’s untimely end, it also built up the season’s frontrunner. From Day 1, Mat Rogers has been playing a powerful game. He has always focused on keeping tight numbers around him, but he has never failed to reach out to build relationships with others. We saw it with Monika, then with Shonee and again tonight with Fenella, who he pointedly targeted in picking her to join him and Sharn for a relaxing spa day, offering her a place in a six-strong alliance alongside Steve, Shane and Shonee. Even his bestowing of gifts after the spa reward showed his dedication to this strategy (though it also gave us one of the most WTF moments in the Brian “Grubby” Lake bath scene). Although Mat’s desire to gather numbers in his pocket is transparent, he’s having success because everyone else is looking for options too and he holds just enough power in the tribe to be the one driving the bus. Winning Immunity tonight, in everyone’s favourite water torture challenge (now with freezing cold water and biting fish!), certainly helped too.
But Mat’s other successful strategy is that he’s always the one to strike first, eliminating anyone who poses a threat to his game before they have a chance to rise up against him. He cut Jackie out before she could scoop up Shonee and move against him. He cut out Lydia, distrusting her strong bond with the Contender boys. And again, tonight, he eliminated Samuel just as he was beginning to assemble a rebellion. By continuing to sever the head of the coup before it even gains momentum keeps the outsiders isolated from each other and allows him to utilise his first strategy of drawing in the hangers-on to build new options for himself.
For someone still championing friendship and showing abject bafflement at players like Sam and Benji trying to play for their own interests, Mat is playing an absolutely ruthless and self-serving game. I always empathise with players grappling with the morality of the head-screw that is Survivor, and I’m enjoying seeing Mat work through the betrayal and deception inherent to the game and yet so against his natural character. But I hope he’s able to recognise and articulate the nature of the type of game he’s playing should he make it to the end – Survivor is a tough game that requires self-interest for self-preservation, and he’s playing that game beautifully.
The trouble with Mat’s game is that he’s got nowhere to hide. He’s playing an incredible game and earning the “Godfather” moniker bestowed upon him by Benji, who’s found a new go-to metaphor now that the “King” and “Queen” are gone. But Mat’s peaking so early – with 15 days left in the game, it’ll be a challenge to keep up the pace and keep dodging that target. It’s also worth noting that he only seems to have one genuinely loyal ally in Steve. Shane has shown herself to be willing to go big game hunting. Sharn has been burned by Mat and has other options with Benji. Monika and Brian both seem acutely aware of their positions on the periphery and appear willing to jump ship if the right opportunity presents itself. And Benji, Fenella and Shonee have Mat’s number; they know that he’s only drawing them in as a number and are looking for the opportunity to turn the tables. Even with an Idol in his pocket and a stellar game resume, Mat is in a very precarious position.
In stark opposition to the kingpin in Mat is the underdog in Benji, who continued to battle his way up from the bottom tonight. As a character, Benji is polarising, but there’s no denying he’s playing a pretty scrappy game. Bouncing back from the Lydia blindside, he cut the dead weight of his closest ally in Robbie to prove allegiance to an alliance he intends to betray – that takes some guts. Like Samuel, he seemed positioned to make the big move against Mat tonight, and he made the excellent play of propping Sam up as the frontman for the plan, pushing the target onto him should it all blow up in their faces.
But even when the Immunity Necklace thwarted his plans, Benji seemed to recover much better than his Champion counterpart. He happily joined the backup plan against Steve but also continued to calmly play the middle, approaching Mat with a resigned trust, which allowed him to learn of the plot against Samuel and the fact that his name was the decoy. And even though tonight’s episode ended with Mat seemingly unsure if he could trust Benji given Sam’s assertion that the Contender had spilled the beans, we never saw that happen – perhaps Benji can find a way to recover. At Tribal, Benji spoke of a calm acceptance required in the game – where you have to trust in the people you gave your word to – and this philosophy could speak to players like Mat who may be seeking some stability after the paranoia stirred up by Sam.
SAY IT’S SO
So where does all of this leave us? With nine players left in the game, an odd number is a prime opportunity to make a move, and with such small factions left in play (Mat & Steve, Fenella & Shonee, and a wealth of free agents in Benji, Sharn, Monika, Brian and Shane), it feels like anything could happen. With the Champions willingly turning on their own, the Contenders scraping through by the skin of their teeth, everybody looking to strike first and seize the power, plus two Idols and a vote steal in play, there is lot is going on.
It’s big talk to suggest we’re in for an epic endgame, but at this point, I’m certainly not ruling out the possibility. The pieces are in place, so let’s see where it goes!
OTHER #SURVIVORAU COVERAGE on INSIDE SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor will be back Monday September 17 at 7.30pm AEST, and Alice Barelli will be on hand to recap everything that goes down, down under.
Also be sure to check out our Power Rankings with AU Season 2 legends Luke Toki, Sarah Tilleke and Tessa O’Halloran, and keep an eye out for exit interviews with the Champions and Contenders after their torches are snuffed!