Austin Smith breaks down the tribe swap and abrupt ending of Australian Survivor episode eight.
It’s safe to say that Survivor without Tribal Council feels strange. The game is constructed so that every three-day cycle builds to a climax in the torch-lit arena. Grievances are aired. Allegiances are tested. And ultimately someone gets voted out. Tribal Council is often enthralling, sometimes disappointing, but always conclusive.
Even when an episode of Survivor ends without a Tribal, it’s due to a medical evacuation or a quit at camp. There’s still a sense of finality: someone goes home, and it’s the end of their story.
But to conclude an episode so abruptly, as with tonight’s episode, is unprecedented – and ultimately, a little frustrating. There was no conclusion. No climax. It was all build-up, and then instead of a commercial break, it’s “Next Time… on Survivor.”
Tonight’s episode played like a midseason episode of Game of Thrones (or, insert your favourite prestige TV drama here). These episodes aren’t inherently bad, but they’re often slow or disjointed or packed with filler that postpones the exciting stuff until the finale. They’re table-setting; moving pieces around the board in preparation for a bigger narrative down the line but with no immediate payoff.
This is a new form for a Survivor episode to take and it does make for a unique episode. Instead of getting caught up in the strategic march to Tribal, we settle in for a character study, an examination of interpersonal dynamics and a more thematic narrative.
Closely following the trajectories of several key players through the game-changing tribe swap (or, “merge” as I will adamantly refuse to call it), the viewers get a chance to examine what it means to be self-aware in a game with its own unpredictable trajectory. And how control is subject to manipulation, cockiness, and fate. But before I dig into these stories: some table-setting of my own.
DROP YOUR BUFFS
Halfway through the episode, our three tribes arrive at what they expect to be an Immunity Challenge. Only, in true twisty Australian Survivor fashion, the tribes will instead compete for an undisclosed advantage. It’s the classic challenge “United We Stand,” requiring the tribes to transport one member of their tribe across the water, one step at a time, on unstable posts and concluding with the tribe squeezing themselves onto a tiny platform akin to your last corporate team-building exercise.
Saanapu pulls off the victory and is rewarded with incredible power: the ability to draft two new 9-person tribes. Survivor history has sometimes put tribe divisions in the hands of the contestants, but rarely with such complete control given exclusively to a few players.
Wisely, the Saanapu tribe elects to stay together on the new Saanapu to command a 5-strong majority (“United we stand,” get it?). From there, they get to cherry-pick the remaining four members of their new tribe from the remnants of Vavau and Aganoa. Their first pick is the obvious one, repatriating strong and loyal Sam who was unwillingly taken from them by Conner during last week’s bonkers Tribal.
They then choose Lee and El from Aganoa. It’s a smart move to pick up another challenge beast in Lee and also keeps their enemies close by bringing a potential threat under their watch. “Brilliant soul” El is a more unusual choice at face value, and it appears as though Lee may have stumped for her, bringing over both an ally and someone for diverse challenge capabilities.
Finally, it’s time for the cannon fodder. Isolating a target is a clever approach, and splitting up the duo of Craig and Jennah-Louise is a solid idea. Jennah fears her number is up, and her instincts are right, as Nick persuades his tribe to bring her over to blue. Whether Jennah was the right call over the more obvious threat in Craig is a question worth debating, and hopefully, we will know the answer soon.
That leaves the remaining members of Aganoa (Kat, Kristie, Phoebe & Rohan) and Vavau (Andrew, Conner, Craig, Kate & Sue) to merge to form a new Vavau.
Tribe swaps always inject new energy into social dynamics, and can also be significant hurdles for players who are in a good position on their original tribe. But without knowing how this pans out for certain, let’s dive into the stories that guide us through this game transition.
CHESTER’S ANGELS: MATT & BROOKE
The first storyline of the night centres on the relationship between Matt and Brooke. These two players have been slow-burn characters, flying under the radar and mostly used to prop up the stories of their allies. But tonight, they get an opportunity to step into the spotlight, emerging as definite players to watch as they lay their contrasting levels of awareness on the table.
Before the swap, Matt’s confidence is at an all-time high. Only a few short days after learning that his allies Flick & Brooke had been making promises to everyone, he appears to have jumped back into bed with them. Noting that he’s controlled the votes at all previous Tribal Councils, he admits that he’s ended up with a de facto leadership of the alliance, which he has dubbed “Charlie’s Angels.”
Following the swap and the return of the loyal Sam, Matt ultimately doubles down on his allegiance to Flick and Brooke. He tells them that he views them as the tight core of the original Saanapu alliance (sorry Conner!), with Kylie and Sam as numbers and Nick as a satellite member. There does not appear to be any contingency plan in Matt’s mind – he is all in on original Saanapu, and particularly with Brooke and Flick.
It’s a surprisingly self-assured version of Matt. Throughout the episode, however, it is continually painted as an overconfident Matt, particularly in contrast to Brooke who has grown more aware with each passing episode.
She’s come a long way from Episode 2 when she appeared surprised that a transparent partnership with Flick would put a target on her back. Now, she firmly knows that her only trustworthy ally is Flick (and let’s not forget that Flick has been the one taking the heat for their pair). But she has also learned that she needs to work hard to hold the numbers on her side, keeping Matt, Kylie and Nick in the loop enough so that they feel safe.
Most impressively, she’s working to feed Matt’s growing ego. Brooke acknowledges that the magician probably has some tricks up his sleeves, and in a conversation with Flick, the girls specifically acknowledge that they need to keep up the “Charlie’s Angels” façade to convince Matt he is still the one in control.
The contrast between Brooke and Matt is the starkest of the three storylines featured in the episode but is also the most straightforward. Their positions in the game do not change from the beginning to the end, as they both remain at the core of the majority alliance on Saanapu. However, this only serves to highlight that self-awareness can be difficult to keep in check even on a predictable path and that control does not necessarily require awareness.
BURN, BABY, BURN: KAT, ROHAN & PHOEBE
Aganoa’s perspective on the tribe swap is the most one-sided, primarily focused on cashing in yet another of Kat’s nine lives. Kat has perpetually been hanging from a tree limb since the outset of the game, and after a fortuitous reprieve after Peter’s quit, she has been benched by her tribe.
However, she’s not going down without a fight. Even before the tribe swap, Kat is paying close attention to the moods of her most likely allies: the potential women’s alliance. Noting that Rohan’s schtick as the “Fire Warden” has been rubbing El and Kristie the wrong way, Kat sets her mind to “massaging” the seeds of revolution into the minds of her tribemates. Kat is acutely aware that she lacks influence in her tribe, but also understands that she has to try something. Her best bet for now? Burning the Fire Master himself.
Rohan is brought to the fore as Kat’s target throughout the episode, but his own position in the game is always in contrast to Kat. Before the swap, he and Phoebe acknowledge that the Aganoa tribe is a tight alliance of five “besides Kat,” and that they have firm control of their game.
Naturally, this is blown to pieces at the tribe swap, when Lee and El are taken to Saanapu and Rohan finds himself in the minority on the new Vavau. Phoebe and Rohan fear that this is their “worst nightmare” as they have no control of the numbers and a walking, talking liability in their default ally Kat.
Importantly, their nightmares are realised as Kat approaches Kate and dishes all the juicy gossip about the Aganoa tribe, including character assassination by way of flirtatious rumours and the damning (and accurate!) accusation of Rohan’s possession of a Hidden Immunity Idol. It’s an aggressive and desperate play, but it’s the right move for Kat who knows that this is her opportunity to seize control of her fate.
A quick aside: Lee, who did not receive the same complete before-and-after narrative as the other featured contestants this episode, did have an important scene stemming from his stunning new “convertible” runners (how did Fire King Rohan allow such a disaster to occur!?). Lee has moulded his game from honour and integrity, but he is beginning to show more awareness towards the unpredictability of Survivor, noting that “the game can flip.” Translating this knowledge to a change in tactics seems unlikely for the cricketer, but his adaptability will undoubtedly be tested on his new Saanapu tribe.
WEAR IT WELL: JENNAH-LOUISE & CRAIG
In last week’s review, I flagged Jennah and Craig as a duo to watch. It seems as though the castaways have noticed it too, going so far as to dismantle the partnership during the tribe swap intentionally. But, the most interesting aspect of their partnership – and their individual games – is their incredibly astute assessments of their positions coupled with a near ambivalence to these insights. They know they’re in control, they know that they shouldn’t be cocky and yet they skirt dangerously close to arrogance.
Jennah begins the episode by asserting that she is not worried about her position in the tribe nor being voted out. Craig, too, claims he isn’t cocky in his alliance with Jennah, but rather he merely understands his tribemates enough to manipulate them. “Is that control?” he muses with a smile. But moments later in conversation, the pair agree that they can’t let their guard down because that’s when the ship sinks.
It’s almost as if Craig and Jennah are so aware of the traps of arrogance that they have grown cocksure in their knowledge of these pitfalls. And in true Survivor fashion, comeuppance is right around the corner as they are separated at the swap.
Jennah knows that she was picked to be the sacrificial lamb should the new Saanapu go to Tribal Council, and she knows that all of the control she had at Vavau has evaporated. Not only that, but she is trapped on a beach with Nick, who she voted out a few days earlier. The heated argument with Nick is the first big fight of the season and resolves none of their animosity – if anything, it appears that the divide between them has grown.
It’s a tough position for Jennah to be in, particularly because her situation is the result of cascading twists, but there’s a chance she can worm her way out of it. Nick observes that Jennah has a way of scurrying her way to safety if given enough time, and hopes he can take her out sooner rather than later. It’s clear that Jennah understands her dire position in the game, but it remains to be seen if she can scramble to gain some modicum control.
The future is much brighter for Craig, who draws the lucky napkin at the merge (swap!) feast. With what is presumably a clue to a Hidden Immunity Idol in his pocket, Craig appears to be on cloud nine. Between coyly dabbing with his napkin and thanking a “Go girl!”-chanting deity for his good fortune, you would never guess he’d just lost his closest ally to a grisly swap. Yet, I can’t judge him for celebrating a stroke of luck, particularly on what might otherwise be a frustrating situation.
Although Craig remains in a commanding majority position on Vavau, the viewers know that factions are moving against him. Andrew has sights on taking him out, and Kate saw she was at the bottom of Vavau and sought to build something with Conner. Not to mention the wrinkles introduced by the Aganoans. Moving forward, it would be wise for Craig to heed his own advice doled out to Saanapu to avoid getting cocky: “That’s when mistakes happen in this game.”
The narrative of Craig and Jennah could have been one a standard fall-from-grace, but the pair’s awareness of their control of the game – and its temptations – gives their story a far more nuanced tone.
NEXT TIME… ON SURVIVOR
And so we are left with a hundred questions and nary an answer in sight. Ending the episode without an elimination, particularly after a “merge bump,” was an unexpected conclusion to Week 3 of Australian Survivor, but in the context of the season as a whole, the extra time spent crafting these narratives of self-awareness, control and adaptability could very well pay dividends. Hopefully, when Sunday rolls around, we’ll learn that the juice was worth the squeeze.