Among the greatest qualities of Australian Survivor stands its continual commitment towards epic challenges. Whether iconic for their daunting scope or brutal intensity, their innovative ideas, or just the occasional game of charades for the heck of it, challenges have quickly become one of the defining features of this particular production. But is it beginning to become problematic? With the advent of the Champions vs. Contenders iterations, the physicality of the challenges leapt immensely, and we barely saw any puzzles rear their head—especially in the early tribe portion of the game.
Acts of brute strength make for a spectacle, and I’m sure that a large portion of the casual audience finds these challenges to be a highlight of each and every episode. However, when every challenge goes back to the same well of push this, lift that, hold this other thing, it begins to get very redundant. We’re experiencing this repetitive fatigue on US Survivor with pre-merge challenges being predominantly an obstacle then a puzzle and post-merge challenges being some variation of stand-still-in-this-awkward-position. Without variety, the challenges begin to blend together, and it starts to feel like we’ve seen it all before. This is even more pronounced by the show’s bizarre tendency to clump similar challenges together—tonight’s reward challenge of push this heavy object and the immunity challenge of hold up this other heavy object being a prime example.
But worse than the repetitiveness is the impact it has on gameplay—and especially the stifling effect it can have on players who rely more on social and strategic skills than physical ones. The intense physicality of the challenges allows physical assets to skate through the early game while weaker players have to scrap and hope for a lucky break. To be fair, the tables usually turn at the merge as the challenge beasts become the prime targets. Still, with the extremity of Australian Survivor’s challenges, there is very little room to hide for a player with a non-physical skillset. And when challenge after challenge is reliant on one kind of strength, such as the brute force of Australian Survivor, it can quickly box a player out.
A BALANCED TEAM
Such was the fate of Michelle—a player whose words are her weapon. In her first season, Michelle’s eloquence was an underrated skill, and she used her social machinations to manoeuvre her way up to the Final Four with a very high chance of being crowned victorious. Those skills were still in play here as Michelle rallied with a string of impressive arguments at Tribal Council, but she simply could not escape the label she could do nothing about. In a tribe peppered with legitimate athletes like Abbey, Lydia, and Lee and physical powerhouses like Zach, John, and Sharn, she was easy to peg as the “weak link” when it came to the concept of “challenge strength.” This was especially ominous after being the first to drop out of a gruelling brute strength challenge, which undoubtedly contributed to the tribe’s defeat.
However, Michelle was not willing to lie down and die. At Tribal, she beautifully combatted the arguments against her. First of all, she negated the double standard she faced. While her poor performance in the Day 9 Immunity challenge was being flagged as evidence of her being a challenge liability, the muscular Lee was able to escape the blame after choking at the end of the Day 2 Immunity as the tribe claimed everything was a collective loss or win. But for Michelle, as a player whose assets were not as immediately apparent, a bad showing was enough to get her voted out.
Furthermore, the argument of challenge strength was erroneously framed in the context of literal strength. Michelle is not physically inept, and as she articulated, her challenge contributions could be found in cardio-based physicality—running or swimming—or balance. She also argued that diversification of skills was essential and that stacking a team with one kind of strength—brute force—could weaken the tribe if other kinds of challenges reared their heads. They were compelling arguments, and Michelle sold them with aplomb. They’re the arguments I’ve often sought to articulate in my own mind when the notion of “challenge strength” comes up in an episode of Survivor, or as I imagine how I, an unathletic nerd, would have to manoeuvre this phase of the game if I were out on the island.
Michelle’s authoritative and persuasive presentation was brilliantly put, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t going to land. In a sense, the game itself was against her. Although her argument about needing a diverse set of skills to have a strong tribe was, and should be, critical, Australian Survivor’s obsession with brute strength challenges over the past few seasons stands as stark evidence to the contrary. When every challenge comes down to literal strength, that becomes the own challenge ability of value, and that is a frustrating trend.
However, it’s also worth noting that Michelle’s elimination was not the sole result of being “weak” in the challenges. From what we saw, Michelle never found a solid social foundation on Mokuta. She seemed to have a good rapport with Shonee in their budding Brunch Alliance, but Shonee never brought Michelle into the Little Rascals gang, even as they sought numbers to make a move against Henry. When she made her tour to plead her case and try to slide into the majority, she appeared to be completely shut down by Lee, by Sharn, by John… player after player. Going back to the first Tribal, she was the secondary target in the original split vote (hence, Lee’s vote for her), suggesting she had always been on the outs.
So while Michelle’s challenge capabilities may have certainly been a deciding factor in her early elimination, a player is rarely voted out by a decisive majority if there’s not something else at play. And in this case, Michelle simply didn’t have the friends she needed. Without friends, her social skills could only do so much, no matter how much she also argued towards the true strength of a tribe lying in unity and loyalty, rather than any individual asset.
This is yet another argument I wholly agree with. It might make for a more boring game, but the sturdiest way to play Survivor is to forge a unified front that can power ahead. Even though holding a numerical majority can certainly help, how many times have we watched small, loyal factions barrel through a divided majority? Heck, it looks like it could be happening right now on Vakama with Mat’s crew! Certainty in a loyal and cohesive unit is one of the most powerful assets in Survivor, and it was assuring to hear others on the tribe echo this thinking—including reputable strategists like Nick.
But that kind of unerring trust and loyalty has to come from all sides or else lines will become cracks, and cracks will destroy the whole thing. In Michelle’s case, it simply seemed like she hadn’t managed to forge that trust and loyalty to the point where it could save her. So alas, her time was cut all too short as she poetically bookended a 4th place finish with now becoming the 4th one out.
FROM THE PARAPETS
For all of the talk around Michelle and challenge performance, there was a war brewing in the background of a straightforward vote. Henry, isolated after his failed plan to save Shane, was already in danger. He’d tried to push the game to move too quickly, and it bit him, ostracising him from a tribe that was content to play it slow. Even Nick, with his reputation for playing too hard too fast, was wary of Henry’s overly aggressive strategy and began to distance himself from the ticking time bomb. And if suspicions weren’t already aroused, Henry had no room to hide when AK fired a shot across the bow at the reward challenge, publicly declaring that he’d seen Henry give an Idol to Mat at the last challenge. While a ballsy (and potentially dangerous) move on AK’s part, it was a death knell for Henry.
And yet, despite the brewing distrust, Henry had a perfect scapegoat as the tribe coalesced around the “easy” vote on Michelle. He had a chance to slide through this Tribal unharmed, giving him more time to subtly finagle a way forward. Instead, he turned straight back to his old tricks. As he’d done with Shane before, Henry was concerned about losing a potential ally in Michelle and began leading a campaign to turn the vote against Sharn. It was a clever choice for a gamer, as Henry recognised the inherent danger in a player like her. While I haven’t made up my own personal rankings, it’s hard to quibble with Henry’s assertion that Sharn is likely the best player to never win Australian Survivor. As he elaborated, she can bond with the hero and alpha types, putting up an honourable front, but she is a cunning strategist—a fact helpfully overshadowed by her public blunders like ‘pooping’ an Idol and being duped by Benji.
Henry wants to play an advanced game—the kind of game where the big threats like Harry and Sharn go out early on the basis of their past reputation. It’s not an inherently bad strategy, but the trouble is that his tribe is not on that wavelength. Worst of all, the more and more he keeps pushing for a blindside against a big threat, the quicker he’s going to become what he sought to destroy—the big threat that everyone should take down.
And that’s exactly what nearly happened. Worried about Henry’s aggressive and unpredictable gameplay, which could threaten to upend any carefully laid plan simply because Henry was bored, Nick motioned to make a pre-emptive strike. He pitched it to the Little Rascals, and they agreed to follow his lead if he wanted to push for it. Nick then made the rounds to propose the idea to the rest of the majority but was met with a cool reception. While the likes of Abbey, Lee, and Lydia recognised that Henry posed a potential threat, they were reticent to cut loose a strong asset in challenges this early on. Nevertheless, Nick persisted, and we ultimately headed to Tribal uncertain of how effective his plea had been.
As Jonathan read the votes, I grimaced as I watched the parchments turn over. Two for Sharn—so Henry had clearly missed the message again that the tribe was not on board with his schemes. Three for Henry—that would be the Little Rascals, surely—and the rest for Michelle. I feared for the worst that Nick, Harry, and Shonee had been left out in the cold by the Mokuta core and were both isolated and unsuccessful in mounting their coup against Henry. However, as the votes were later revealed, Nick and Harry had voted for Michelle, and Sharn and John had joined Shonee in voting for Henry. Thus, it appeared that the three votes on Henry were a calculated split vote, agreed upon by the Little Rascals as part of the nine-strong majority.
However, the salt was out of the shaker now. Henry was now 0-2 in attempted big moves. And in an attempt to oust the troublemaker, Nick himself became seen as throwing a wrench in an easy plan. For all the talk of this vote strengthening Mokuta physically and spiritually for cohesion, it was quickly apparent that a war would be brewing between Nick and Henry—neither successful in getting what they wanted in the last vote, and neither with confident numbers to wrest control of a future vote. I’m thrilled to see how this brewing rivalry will play out. Even though precedent suggests that Nick and his Rascals can stick with the majority to finish off Henry, there is reason to fear that the stirring of a snakier Nick could turn the majority against him and the Rascals, especially if Henry is somehow able to throw fuel on that fire. At this point, Mokuta feels like an absolute powder keg, and I imagine it’s going to have a very short fuse.
By contrast, the Vakama tribe dynamics are less of a high-stakes action movie and more of a tense, slow-burn thriller. In the aftermath of David and Mat pulling off an impossibly effortless subterfuge, Vakama was left reeling. Mat’s minority foursome was not only still intact but was more united than ever. Emboldened by their success, Mat was also reclaiming his reputation as the Godfather. This made him an intimidating adversary for the majority alliance already, but that aura only grew after he brazenly overturned the tribe’s DIY Fish & Chips reward to find yet another Idol in front of the entire tribe—his third over the course of his seasons, albeit the first he’s found himself.
The minority alliance now held the trump card again, and everybody knew it. Mat, in one of the biggest turnarounds in the space of two episodes, had gone from a sitting duck to a dangerous power player. With his alliance with David still under wraps, Mat’s group was also growing tighter. His partnership with Moana, continuing from their inseparable bond in their first season, also strengthened as Mat filled her in on his secret alliance with David. I’m not entirely sure about this decision, but ultimately Mat trusts Moana far more than David and having a partnership managing this risky and unstable cross-alliance relationship could be beneficial. It certainly suggests that Mat is quickly holding the power in his dynamic with David and that he will not hesitate to eliminate the informant if any danger should come to his family of Mo, Jacqui, and Tarzan.
But the majority still held a 6-4 numerical advantage, so despite getting rattled by the Daisy blindside and Mat finding another Idol, shouldn’t they still have the upper hand? If only it were that simple, as a lingering question dangled over them. How did Mat know to play the Idol for Jacqui? Despite Mat’s performance at Tribal Council and his admittedly logical explanation for how he could have deduced the vote, Locky was convinced there was a mole in the alliance. But who?
While the majority couldn’t be certain who the rat was, the paranoia seems poised to divide them. No more can they share a cookie and comfortably discuss a plan without also fearing whether the double-agent will spill the beans. It could be that the majority suss out David’s duplicity, especially if he bungles his move-for-a-move’s-sake play with constructing another fake Idol, but precedent suggests that David is a wily one who may be able to avoid danger. It’s equally possible that the paranoia, fuelled by the fear of Mat’s unbreakable coalition, could fracture the majority as they start pointing fingers at the wrong people. Regardless, there’s a fascinating tension in the Vakama storyline, and I hope we get many more episodes out of this convoluted and gripping dynamic.
A STRONG START
Australian Survivor: All-Stars is continuing to move along at a thrilling pace, and even though tonight’s result was not especially surprising and unfortunately influenced by the show’s current fascination with brute strength in challenges, it’s clear that the gameplay is beginning to ramp up. Between the Cold War tensions on Vakama and the all-out brawl brewing on Mokuta, we might not have any winners left to go to war, but the fight is about to begin.
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Australian Survivor airs Monday through Wednesday at 7.30pm AEST.
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