It’s the necessary evil of Australian Survivor – the non-elimination episode. It’s been a mixed bag over the past seasons, and although I’m still not sure how I stand on the introduction of what appears to be a one-off Redemption Island halfway through the pre-merge, I think this twist promises to change up the routine for a couple of votes without wholly upending the trajectory of the game.
Aside from the Tribal twists, though, tonight’s episode – the first hour-long instalment of the season – gave us one of the most strategy-heavy episodes of the season as it fleshed out the dynamics of the Contenders tribe and finally gave us a proper introduction to a new power player emerging from the pack to upend the status quo.
THE RULING CLASS
As we understood the Contenders tribe, there was a clear division between the men’s alliance of Zach, Robbie and Benji, and the women’s alliance of Anita, Shonee and Fenella. The united pair of Heath and Tegan co-existed in the middle, flirting with allegiance to both sides, while Paige was left on the outside looking in as the resident persona non grata.
Tonight’s episode, however, shifted these allegiances considerably. Not only did the obvious outlier in Paige somehow manage to completely duck under the radar and even into strategic conversations with Tegan and Anita – who one episode ago was lambasting her for fraternising with the enemy – but our perspective of who was actually in control of the alliances and the tribe was totally upended.
Heath and Tegan were in a perfect position after the Steve vote where they joined forces with the women, and even after losing their close ally in Jenna, they still held sway as the clear swing votes between the two warring factions. Thanks to their strong personal connection through similar life experience as young parents, they had a loyal partnership. On top of that, they had a decent strategy in place to continue to work their respective ties – Tegan with the girls and Heath with the boys. As level-headed players with game awareness, they had the potential to do some damage together on the strategic front.
Tegan’s work to focus on the animosity towards Zach – whose obnoxious, offensive behaviour and derogatory commentary was grating on the women – seemed to be solidifying him as an obvious target. After the Contenders lost the challenge, she began crafting the narrative well – even though Zach had the muscles, he still wasn’t consistently delivering in the challenges, and his approach to the game threatened to stifle the way people like Anita, Paige and Fenella hoped to play. We’ve seen Tegan take an active role in the vote before, and she seems to play it well with persuasive arguments and social appeal.
Meanwhile, Heath came upon a second Idol clue hidden in the tribe flag and chose to share the information with Tegan. While I’m generally reticent to sharing information about Idols and Advantages, the trust between the two was strong enough to allow them to make the most of it, and with the Idol buried in the middle of camp below the tribe flag, it would take come co-ordination to obtain. Together, they were able to create the opportunity as Tegan led the bulk of the tribe away from camp on a pipi-hunting adventure as Heath remained at camp with a paranoid Zach who came within centimetres of the Idol. In the end, though, Heath secured it for himself and his alliance and it looked like the pair had it under control.
The trouble was that their power had grown in the wake of the Steve vote, and their position as the swing votes had become obvious to onlookers, particularly to the men who were now on the precipice. Enter Benji Wilson.
We’ve seen next to nothing of Benji through the first six episodes of the season, barring the occasional comment at Tribal, but tonight was his coming-out party as he dominated the narrative with a confidence bordering on cockiness, but the strategic thinking and effortless execution to back it up. To this point, it’s been easy to assume that Zach has led the men’s alliance, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, it appears that Benji is the brains behind the operation – while Zach retreated and panicked as the numbers shifted against him, Benji grabbed the game by the horns.
Recognising that Heath and Tegan, dubbed the King and Queen, held all the influence as the swing votes, Benji set about trying to undermine their control by making peace with the enemy. Targeting Shonee as the crux of her alliance (or a 3-for-1 “value pack”), he approached her about working together even before Tribal was looming. He admitted that the pair had had little interaction, and talking game right off the bat is a risky move, but it seemed to lay important groundwork that paid off down the line.
Following the Immunity loss, Benji made the critical move of the night, fabricating a lie and building a foundation upon it. With word spreading suggesting that Zach’s mouth would earn him the boot, Benji and Robbie approached Fenella and Shonee. Expertly, Benji sold them a complete lie that Tegan and Heath were playing the women and were, in fact, targeting Anita. It was a bold and risky move, but it got the cogs turning. Unsure of who to trust, Shonee and Fenella took the information back to Anita, who was startled by the false revelation (though he later perpetuated his lie into reality, telling Heath and Tegan to vote for Anita thereby lending credence to his deception). Somehow, some way, Benji managed to turn enemies into allies in a classic move to gang up against the swing vote relishing their power in the middle – and that is no mean feat.
That’s not to say that Benji’s game was flawless. There’s a definite streak of over-confidence in his confessionals, though it is difficult to delineate between legitimate arrogance and bluster for the camera. Nevertheless, when he’s referring to Shonee as someone “easy to manipulate” (when we’ve seen her hold her own as a quietly impactful player) and asserting that he’s “playing with amateurs,” there are red flags. However, it’s exciting to see castaways eager to play the game for the game’s sake, and by his own admission that it’s not the money but the title that motivates him. It’s clear Benji is willing – and capable – of making an impact on the game.
In the end, though, the double-edged sword of tribe influence cut deep and Tegan suffered a devastating blindside. The interesting wrinkle is the stray vote for Anita in the mix. Inexplicably, the episode did not confirm the votes over the credits, but we did see Heath tell Tegan he’d vote with the boys against Anita to maintain his relationship with them while Tegan could vote with the girls to make a 5-4 vote against Zach. It’s always dangerous to have a narrow vote, and it doesn’t seem like trust gained by Heath voting with the boys would counter the fury of a scorned Anita – perhaps it would have been better for Heath and Tegan to commit to one side or the other given they were already on the radar as an alliance. But the question now is how Heath plays his stray vote. Just like Paige followed the apparent plan to vote out Shonee only to be betrayed by the boys, can Heath adopt a similar (if untruthful) story to regain trust? Or is he the new outcast, but one with a handy Idol in his pocket?
There’s one other major factor in play: Redemp—no, Exile Beach? That’s what we’re going with? While Tegan was blindsided out of her tribe, she’s not out of the game yet. Instead, she’s banished to Exile Beach alone to be joined by the next castaway voted out where the two will compete in a one-off Duel – the winner re-enters the game, the loser is out for good. As a singular twist, it’s an unusual one, but I will say that I much prefer it to non-elimination twists like the blind psych-out that saw Tara and Anneliese voted out last season only to be swapped to the other tribe – after all, tonight’s vote and the next are very live votes and with real consequences – Tegan was voted out, but she just gets a small chance to save herself.
While I don’t love the Redemption Island-style twists, I’m curious to see how this all plays out. I have to give credit to Australian Survivor for correcting one of the biggest issues with some of their past twists. The game is always more interesting when players get the opportunity to react to the twists thrown their way, and the fact that Jonathan LaPaglia told the tribe what was going down before the vote creates a little more drama and excitement. Although it seems the vote stayed the same tonight, it gave the players the opportunity to try something different if they had wished, and for that, I’m grateful.
So with all that in mind, was it the right choice to vote Tegan out and send her to Exile? I’m not so sure it was. In isolation, voting out an obvious target like Zach over blindsiding someone like Tegan, knowing there’s a chance they’ll come back, seems like the smarter play. If Zach were to win his way back in, he already knew he was on the outs with the Contenders, but he’s also rubbed that Champions the wrong way with his posturing at challenges, so there’s little damage done. Meanwhile, Tegan would be burned by her whole tribe turning against her and would have strong motivations to flip to work with the Champions if given a chance. Of course, with so little time to weigh up the pros and cons and the difficulty of coordinating a new target at Tribal, I can’t judge the Contenders’ decision too harshly, but I’m fascinated to see how this will affect the next vote as the players have more time to consider the Exile Beach twist.
A PEACEFUL KINGDOM
While the Contenders tribe dominated tonight’s story, fleshing out its tribe dynamics and characters (even making sure to highlight Fenella’s delightful banter with Jonathan at the challenge, as she pulled a Penner and sassed him for his commentary), the Champions tribe was barely seen. It’s not like they are one big happy family – as their Tribals have clearly shown – but overall, they seem to be finding joy in their own rhythms. As Lydia noted at the top of the episode, they’re getting to know each other well and finding their “isms” whether it be Monika’s expertise at gutting the fish to Brian’s peculiar urination habits. There is a pleasant vibe amongst the Champions when the heat isn’t on – when they’re winning, then they’re enjoying the island life – and honestly, I don’t mind seeing people getting along on Survivor. The game gets brutal by necessity, and I’ll always relish moments of calm before the storm.
The notable scene on the Champions (no, not the bit with Sam’s pizza-surfing kittens shirt) was our first real introduction to Sharn. Through the first six episodes, it seemed that Sharn is one of the best players on the tribe – and perhaps is the power behind the throne. Between her tight alliance with Moana and strong social connections, her constant involvement in directing the vote and all the way down to her calculated move at the last Tribal to ensure the flushing of Shane’s Idol, it seems like she’s running things. And tonight we finally got to learn a little more about her personally as Mo’s emotional exit left her feeling sad and reflecting on home and family. But it is clear Sharn is here to play – as a high-profile barrister, she’s got the skills to persuade, and we’ve already seen her in action. She claims she’s a great closer, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her close out the season in high regard.
SEND FORTH THE CHALLENGER
With Tegan trapped in the purgatory of Exile, tomorrow night’s episode should be an unconventional one as the tribes assess how they want to approach the twist. Do they vote out their weak or an untrustworthy opponent? Or do they vote out someone they hope can beat Tegan in the subsequent Duel? Regardless, let’s hope it’s an intriguing installment and a satisfying story rises from our first big twist of the season.
OTHER #SURVIVORAU COVERAGE on INSIDE SURVIVOR
Australian Survivor will be back Tuesday 14 August 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!