Aussie contributor Austin Smith tries to make sense of a bonkers episode of Australian Survivor.
“What the hell just happened!?” My thoughts exactly, Matt.
As every Australian Survivor viewer tries to process the insanity that just went down, and I try to wrangle this glorious and unwieldy episode into a comprehensible review, I’m sure Jonathan LaPaglia and the SurvivorAU team are dancing with joy for having pulled off their first big water cooler moment.
In what is sure to be a divisive and controversial twist, Australian Survivor takes a “red hot crack” at blazing its own trail. To sum it up: One tribe only wins immunity, and the two losing tribes rock up to a shared Tribal Council. The unsuspecting castaways vote somebody out of their tribe, only to learn they did not vote them out of the game. Rather, the booted castaways swap tribes and as a bonus, they get to bring a buddy along for the ride.
I’m sure this twist will be divisive among fans. Some will be disappointed that for the second night in a row, nobody is voted out of the game at Tribal Council. Others will feel cheated by the babushka doll twist-inside-another-twist which exists only to be a shocking moment, or will perceive it as being fundamentally against the principles of Survivor.
Others will celebrate the inventive concept. Or get giddy with all the drama produced by the game-changing switcheroo. Or simply enjoy the sheer excitement of watching something so unexpected unfold and unfold again, minute after minute.
I’ll be honest; I’m in the latter category. I spent the last minutes of the episode furiously texting my friends with Caps Lock on and an excessive use of exclamation marks. I was glued to the screen, thrilled by one of the most unpredictable shake-ups in Survivor history and a ground-breaking shift in the game these Australian castaways are playing out in Samoa. I am on the edge of my seat waiting to see the next episode (and after three consecutive nights, Sunday feels like a lifetime away) to learn how this all plays out.
“We’ve been in a honeymoon period, and it’s been sweet,” observes Jennah-Louise, “but things can get really get dirty.”
Let’s start with Vavau. Australian Survivor’s “love tribe” has been getting the short end of the narrative stick these last several episodes, primarily because they’ve been an unstoppable force in the challenges. Last night, we learned that with a broken flint, they’d been without fire, food, and water for several days. As the saying goes, “In this game, fire represents life. When your fire is gone, so are you.” So it was for Vavau and their winning streak.
The tribe took a page out of the San Juan del Sur playbook and traded all of their hard-earned challenge winnings (including fishing gear and comfort items) for a new flint. A smart decision at face value, but at the Reward Challenge, Jonathan added insult to injury by putting their winnings up for grabs alongside a chicken coop. When Vavau struggled to break their way through the barricades built by their opposition in the challenge (evidently, nobody was a Girl Guide), the dominant yellow tribe tasted their first bitter sip of defeat, followed by the unappetising flavour of snails back at camp.
Vavau seems to be a tribe buoyed by a positive outlook, but losing momentum in Survivor can be deadly. At the subsequent Immunity Challenge, a narrow loss sent them straight to their very first Tribal Council. But at least we finally get to see how the tribe dynamics and alliances are shaking out.
Nick has been our primary narrator since the beginning, and we’ve followed him as he’s struggled with leadership and been slammed by his own poetry. He’s been charming and laid-back to the confessional camera but has also behaved erratically around his tribemates. We got a lot more Nick tonight, and for good reason: he’s a compelling storyteller and one of the most dynamic characters. He gets some more character shading at the top of this episode as he takes a moment to reflect on the passing of his mother from breast cancer, and her memory inspires him to cancel his “pity party” and get his head back in the game.
The problem is that Nick’s game is frantic, and his tribe see him as both a strategic threat and an untrustworthy ally. He’s excited to go to Tribal Council for the rite of passage akin to the Maasai warriors, but he’s in for something more like a baptism of fire.
He solidifies what appears to be a Final Two alliance with Kate, whose sunny outlook does not seem to have been clouded by his frenetic play. As hinted last episode, Nick also believes himself to be in a standing four-strong alliance with Craig, Jennah-Louise and Sue. However, these allies are all wary of him. Sue laments that although he is a lovely man, she harbours “seeds of doubt” about Nick’s loyalty. Meanwhile, Craig and Jennah are eager to cut him loose.
Craig and Jennah appear to be emerging as a power-couple in Vavau. After attempting to throw the vote towards Tegan (ostensibly to weaken Nick, who is close to her), they turn against Nick with guns blazing. The pair plays it smart. They know Nick has made himself a target already, and they placate his attempts to eliminate Barry (who pulls the closest thing we’ve had to Sean Kenniff’s alphabet strategy since Borneo when he announces he’ll vote by pulling a name out of a hat). Jennah and Craig have both had a very subtle and consistent presence since the premiere, and they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Andrew is another power player lurking under a hat Jonathan Penner would be proud of. He’s been out to get Nick from the start and is chomping at the bit to take out the over-player. Andrew’s interests clearly align with those of Craig, Jennah, and Sue, but his allegiance to them is ambiguous. Like many of the players on Vavau, we haven’t seen enough of his game to gauge his chances, but he’s in a tentative majority, and it’s simply a question of how he plays that position from here.
Nick’s story of an overeager, overplaying oddball has been building to breaking point since the beginning, and as Vavau heads to Tribal Council, it seems likely that it’s about to reach a tragic conclusion.
THE FALL OF SAANAPU
The commodity of trust is one of the key themes of this episode, and it is most apparent with the complete and utter implosion of the Saanapu alliance.
Kylie tops the episode by finally tracking down a Hidden Immunity Idol apparently buried two centimetres underground. It’s a heroic moment, yet it puts the firefighter mum in a marginally improved position. She has the security of an Idol, but without allies, her options are still limited. She doesn’t appear to make an effort to break apart the young alliance ruling her tribe: Flick and Brooke hold all the cards and flirt with Sam to keep him in line, while Conner and Matt dangle on the bottom rung of the alliance, apparently interchangeably. Normally, that might ruin her chances, but Kylie is lucky that the alliance breaks itself apart like Chester attacking his new chicken housemates.
Fuelled by paranoia that Kylie has found a Hidden Immunity Idol, Flick begins to pull at the strings of her alliance, alternately throwing Conner and Matt under the bus as an alternative boot. Somewhat predictably, she discovers that the web she had woven was not as tight as she had thought. A black widow, she is not. Flick’s overconfidence and that of her ally Brooke is ultimately the undoing of her entire alliance. Her partnership with Brooke is as plain as day, and although she freely admits in a confessional to making too many promises she can’t keep, she doesn’t appear to be concerned that she’s been outed until she is on her way to Tribal with her head on the block.
When Flick begins throwing the names of her alliance-mates around, the boys compare notes and start to realise that she has been telling each of them the same story: that it will be them with Flick and Brooke in the Top Three.
Sam is dumbfounded, but appears to keep his wits about him and realises, “I need to start thinking about myself.” For a man who values honour and mateship at every turn, Flick and Brooke’s duplicitous actions shatter his trust. In response, he solidifies his loyalty to Conner and Matt, who individually react in similar, but very different ways.
Magician Matt’s soft side has reared its head over the past few episodes. Last night, he struggled to say goodbye to Peter as he left the game, and tonight, we see him cradling Chester the Chicken like a protective parent. But we also see him admit that he had overestimated his mentalist ability to detect body language and lies, and he goes into self-defence mode as he grapples with his position in the game. There’s a touch of “anybody but me” in his response as he tries to reclaim his place in the game, and this is on full display at Tribal when he bluntly calls out his tribemates’ poor plays.
Conner, meanwhile, goes on the offensive and spills all of the chickpeas. He confronts Flick directly about her multiple deals and accuses Flick of throwing Brooke under the bus too. Conner is rightly concerned that Flick is gunning for him, but pushes back with so much ferocity that he ultimately draws the target onto his own back. Confrontation rarely pans out well in Survivor, and Conner isn’t able to escape the bullet here.
What should have been an obvious target on Kylie has dissipated into a mess of conflicting signals, and as Saanapu begins their march to Tribal, it becomes apparent that it could be anyone’s name on the ballots.
A BRIEF DIVERSION
Oh yeah, Aganoa was in this episode. After being in the spotlight for the last several episodes, everybody’s favourite trainwreck took a backseat this time around thanks to an impressive Immunity win – it certainly helped that there was no puzzle to botch!
The narrative on the tribe was brief. Kat felt ostracised after being the target at the aborted Tribal Council last episode. Kristie gets one of the best lines of the night (“How do you mend a leg you were about to amputate”). And Phoebe cuts her ties with Kat, realising that she’s burned Kat and therefore, she has “no strategic value.” Cold.
THE JONATHAN LAPAGLIA TWIST-MASTER 5000
And now we reach the climax of the episode – a Tribal Council with so many dizzying twists and turns that it’s basically Rainbow Road.
When both Saanapu and Vavau come into Tribal Council simultaneously, seated right beside each other, I was immediately perplexed. The flagship US series has held double Tribal Councils before, but never simultaneously. It seemed strange, but Australian Survivor decided that a 24-person cast and a 55-day season was the way to go, so I rolled with it.
Jonathan first grills Vavau and gets the most predictably safe answers from the castaways attending their first Tribal Council. Nick says Vavau is an “island bliss,” Sue says the vote will be “gut-wrenching,” Andrew says the tribe is “cohesive.” Barry admits to his disinterest in alliances, and when probed by JLP, emphasises that loyalty and honour are more important to him than winning the game. Basically, it’s non-answers all around at Vavau. It’s fluff, but when you’re sitting right next to your opponents, it’s the right move to keep your cards close to your chest.
But Saanapu… They don’t have time for that kind of clever thinking. It’s hard to know where to begin with Saanapu, who all make a critical mistake of showing every weakness and disharmony in their tribe to their opponents seated right beside them.
After a brief attempt to play the same “one big happy family” card as Vavau, the Tribal goes off the rails as Kylie proudly wears her Hidden Immunity Idol for all to see. Matt calls it out as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” and considers it to be a bluff (a view echoed by Nick across the aisle). Kylie’s decision to flaunt her Idol is not without precedence, but it’s risky – and particularly dangerous when you’re not just showing it to your tribemates, but to a whole tribe of people you’ve never met. There’s a big chance that it could come back to hurt her in the future.
Flick outlines her confrontation with Conner about her lies in great detail. At which point, Conner goes on the attack and throws Matt under the bus, claiming he’d been the one to say that Flick was ready to betray Brooke. It’s a game of telephone that mostly devolves into he said/she said exposition of the Saanapu alliance lines. But the Vavau tribe is loving every second: their perfectly GIF-able reactions punctuated every moment of the heated debate between Saanapu.
From there, it’s time for the castaways to vote, and time for everyone to collectively pick their jaws up off the floor.
When JLP announces that the vote will result in a tribe switch, everybody is shocked. Rightly so – this twist has never played out before on Survivor. It’s a clean vote for yellow, where Nick is cast out from Vavau 5-3, while Saanapu lands on a 3-3 split between Conner and Flick. A revote results in a tie as well and for a moment, it looks as though we might be going to rocks, before Conner volunteers to exile himself to the other tribe.
BUT WAIT! There’s more!
Just as Nick and Conner join their new tribes, JLP reveals one last wrinkle, as the two are permitted to bring one member of their original tribe with them. Nick brings Tegan, while Conner takes Sam, and we are left with two very different-looking tribes.
It’s hard to predict what will happen from here on out. The new Saanapu comprises two obvious pairs in Flick & Brooke and outsiders Nick & Tegan, but Matt and Kylie are both free agents, willing to prioritise their own security in the game over anything. The new Vavau looks like it could be a hostile environment for Conner and Sam who are up against a relatively united tribe, but adding Sammy Amazing to a tribe that has been statistically strong in challenges could be their saving grace.
There is little doubt in my mind that this episode will be talked about for a long time. Australian Survivor took a gamble with a complex and untested twist this episode and has thrust its contestants headfirst into a new fast-paced stage of the game. Will it play out? Who knows?! But it will surely be a heck of a ride.