Austin Smith returns from his travels to recap the nineteenth episode of Australian Survivor.
We find ourselves in what is, perhaps, the most crucial period of the game. These mid-merge votes are the last opportunities for those outside of the core alliance to rebuild the pyramid with themselves at the top, or for those with power to strengthen their grip. This is where games can be lost on a dime and where winners can be forged.
We’ve been spoiled of late in the US series with some unpredictable and exciting merge stretches, and so the slog of Australian Survivor’s merge thus far, with the frustration at watching a majority alliance pagong their way through the outsiders (and arguably, some of the more interesting characters), has been a bit of a disappointment.
This is only exacerbated by the apparent reluctance by the cast as a whole to play their individual games. We’re down to eight people at the end of this episode, but it still seems like many of those in the majority alliance are trying to play with Tribal approach!
But it’s looking up! As we get closer and closer to the inevitable cannibalisation of the majority Old Saanapu alliance, the fractures are growing as the castaways slowly figure out their true position in the game and begin to take matters into their own hands. Jennah-Louise said it best, closing out Tribal Council with an urgent decree to Fia Fia:
“Take the opportunity to get in front. Don’t wait ‘til it’s right in front of you: that you’re sitting at Tribal Council begging for the votes not to be against you. You have time to do something now.”
SHE CAME IN LIKE A MOUSE
Tonight was absolutely the Night of Jennah-Louise. We’ve seen hints of her capabilities as a game player and strategist around the time of the tribe swap, but once Saanapu began their winning streak, she quickly faded into the background. But she’s back and more determined than ever to play the game hard.
Recognising that she was on the outs of the enormous Old Saanapu majority, JL set to work in an attempt to rally her fellow outsiders to flip the game. It might be a few votes too late, as her options for allies are painfully limited, but throughout the episode, she makes perceptive argument after perceptive argument.
Her initial pitches to the perceived outsiders are distinctly tailored to her target and are focused primarily on sussing out whether she can amass the troops for a coup d’état. She approaches Kristie with a languid but passionate suggestion that they make a move in the laid-back manner befitting the self-designated “floater.” She comes to Sam with a direct question – “Are you willing to take a risk with me?” – posed casually in the middle of the camp, almost as a passing small-talk akin to “How about that local sports team?”. Most impressively, her approach with Matt is to frame their discussion in the context of his game, rather than her own.
It’s a nuanced approach, as she tells him that his name has been thrown around as an upcoming target and tries to suggest that it’s in his best interest to take his game into his own hands, rather than just a desperate plea for assistance from an outsider. Unfortunately, Matt’s inability to see the truth of his position in the alliance hierarchy is her undoing, but her approach is a solid one.
Her under-the-radar attempts to fragment the power alliance are also impressively evident in her conversation with Flick after their team loses the Reward Challenge (the classic slingshot challenge where Lee went full Pokémon Master to catch ‘em all and win a Sunday Roast for his team). Flick makes a passing comment about the closeness of Brooke & Sam and Lee & El, as she’s sandwiched between the pairs’ pillow talk each night. Without missing a beat, JL asks her if the dynamic concerns her, and explicitly relates the situation to Flick’s strategic game. The content of the conversation is blunt, but JL’s casual approach to the topic is superbly low-key.
Brooke’s comment that JL came into the game “like a mouse” – quiet, non-threatening and underestimated – is an apt observation. JL has continued to utilise her non-threatening appearance and personality to slip by unnoticed, actively using this perception of her to soften her aggressive attempts to flip the game. But her tribe is quickly realising they’d overlooked her.
As Matt “dobbed” on her attempts to rally the troops, the core majority realised she was a schemer and a threat. But JL recognises that the tides have turned, and she gets her “mongrel on” at the challenge, earning an impressive clinch victory in the block-balancing challenge to save herself from a certain torch-snuffing. Of course, back-to-back challenge wins don’t remove that target.
She managed to save herself for one night, but Jennah-Louise’s prospects moving forward are not ideal. Yet there’s always the hope that her tribemates will wake up to the individual game and want to work with her. There is still time, but the clock is ticking.
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
It seems likely, however, that Matt will sleep through the alarm. For weeks, we’ve seen proof that Matt’s perception of his position in the tribe is not reality (in fact, I wrote about this exact topic all the way back in Episode 8!).
He has been told countless times that he might not be in the position he thinks he’s in. This was confirmed over and over tonight: he was again bandied about as a disposable target by the core alliance, Sam openly accuses him of being fishy, controlling and annoying and Brooke explicitly identifies him as a deluded outsider.
At Tribal Council, when challenged by JL about his position in the game, he asserts that everybody is making comments about his position in the game without knowing what the story really is, or what the context may be. He appears to have an obstinate belief in his four-strong Day One Saanapu alliance, and it seems to be leaving him with a rose-tinted view of the social dynamics at play.
But the most baffling thing about Matt is that he’s not oblivious or stupid! He seems to have some level of understanding that he isn’t in the greatest spot. He explicitly acknowledges that he doesn’t have much power, and will need to rely on someone else taking him to the Final Two. In his conversation with JL at the top of the episode, he appears to understand that the present is a good time to make a move.
Yet, almost inexplicably, he’s “happy to stick with [his] devils” and holds onto his faith in his alliance with Flick, Brooke, and Sam – the very people who are putting his head on the chopping block.
The power couple of Brooke and Flick have found themselves in an incredible position. They’re positioned at the centre of an alliance that’s loyal to a fault, and they’re the one holding all the cards. Alongside El, and with their muscle in Sam and Lee, they’re in a prime position to march their way to the end – and they are completely aware of their power.
Numerous times throughout the episode, they talk about their power, their confidence, and their control – and we see it play out. We see them put the target on Jennah, turning into the seagulls from Finding Nemo as they assure each other, “She’s gone.” When the worst comes to fruition and JL wins Immunity, they’re the ones who turn the target on Sue.
But it’s worth noting that the girls aren’t just reactionary. They’re making plans for their future. In what is almost a throwaway scene, we start the episode with Flick and Brooke discussing whether they try to cut their close allies in Lee and Sam earlier than the Final Five, in order to reduce the chances of them powering their way to the end. It’s a surprisingly perceptive and strategic discussion from characters who have consistently been shown to be unashamedly self-confident (case and point: “Destiny is ours”). It shows that although these women might be at the core of an impassable majority alliance, they are thinking about their long-term individual games.
Their biggest problem is that everyone knows that they are in the centre of the action, and their attempts to play off the accusations of power must be growing tiresome. It’s reasonable to be making an effort to minimise their own target – but when Sue dissects the social dynamics of the majority alliance in gory (and perceptively accurate!) detail at Tribal, and Brooke and Flick literally laugh it off, it comes across as deeply disingenuous. The question, then, is whether anyone on the Island sees it and has the guts and ability to do something about it before we see Destiny’s Child as the Final Two (and the pre-season “I’m a Survivor” promo ads becomes prophetic!).
It’s a crying shame, then, that one of the few castaways willing to go tip-top-toes against the majority alliance has been sent home. Sue was a fascinating character and a wonderfully atypical archetype for Survivor: a grandmother in her late 50s who not only fit in with her tribe socially but also managed to play a game with some real strategic edge.
Tonight, Sue got a fond farewell, highlighting her deep personal connections through her supportive relationship with Jennah, as well as a stroke of strategic genius through her plan to pile her and JL’s votes on Kristie to ride the coattails of a split vote and turn a 4-3-2 Sue elimination into a 5-4 Kristie vote. It was an incredibly perceptive plan, and I was very disappointed to see it fall short.
Sue’s bluntness was her charm, and she went out fighting as she put everything on the table. Not only did she identify the hierarchy of the alliance, but when she was challenged on her prediction that Flick and Brooke would make the Final Two, she turned the fire back on them to directly ask if they planned on voting one another out instead.
Like many of the eliminated castaways over the past couple weeks, it feels like Sue was voted out just as she was coming into her own as a player and a force in the game. Here’s hoping we’ve got a good Jury speech in store!
TIME TO STEP UP
Moving forward, we’re faced with two possible stories. In the first, Sam’s comment that the alliance is “jail-tight: no one comes out” is true, and the core five picks off JL, Kristie, and Matt next week. In the second, and far more entertaining story, we see somebody make a pre-emptive strike, whether it’s the girls executing one of Sam or Lee or the boys figuring out that they can’t rely on having Saanapu numbers forever, or some other fracture entirely.
Either way, we’re at the tipping point of the season before we head into the true end-game. Let’s hope the eight remaining castaways step up, play hard and deliver an exciting finish to Australian Survivor.