This is the third episode I’ve reviewed – in a row! – that has been complicated. Not in the sense of a complex strategy or convoluted social dynamics, but in fundamental format. First, it was the faux Vote-Outs, then it was the Ultimate Reward. Now, for the third time in the last four weeks, a tribe has gone to Tribal Council and nobody has gone home.
Part of me laments, “But I just want to write about a normal episode!” But the other part is intrigued to break down another unique, format-breaking episode of Australian Survivor – and the best part of this one is that there’s plenty of that aforementioned complex strategy and convoluted social dynamic to go around.
Tonight, the challenges gave opportunities for the castaways to mix-and-match in the final days leading up to the merge. The blindfolded Reward Challenge gave the winning Samatau tribe an Italian feast – but also a blind reward in getting to pick two members of the opposing tribe to join them. Naturally, they picked their ex-pat Peter, who chimed in a good word for his only budding ally Sarah. Paranoia spreads like wildfire in Survivor, and this twist fuelled plenty.
But that was just the beginning. After a decisive defeat at the Immunity Challenge (featuring an ingenious hanging puzzle), Asaga was sent to Tribal where their grievances would be aired before the victorious Samatau, who earned a front-row seat to the proceedings. Only instead of voting out one of their own, Asaga was presented with a Mutiny – the first person to stand up from their seat would leave their tribe and join Samatau. It was a massive curveball for the players, particularly given that this episode had played out one of the messiest and unpredictable civil wars yet, as Luke and Sarah turned their guns on each other and fought to amass the decisive majority. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to see the drama reach its climax, but it does mean that there’s plenty to unpack as all the pieces are still standing on the board.
Sarah has played a surprisingly effective middle-of-the-road game. Keenly aware of the social politics within her shifting tribe, she’s been able to manoeuver herself from one side of the line to the other from one vote to the next, and it’s taken 30-odd days for any repercussions to start coming her way. An intelligent player, Sarah knew she was running out of rope with her current strategy. As the numbers on Asaga dwindled, she needed to step out of being just a number in someone else’s plan and instead would need to build a “New Alliance” with herself at the core.
After A.K.’s ouster last week, the lone ex-Samatau Peter could have been easy pickings, but Sarah had smartly spent the last several days fostering ties with the outcast. He needed somebody on his side, and she needed numbers, and their mutually beneficial allegiance could be the beginning of Sarah’s rebel alliance. Her lucky break joining Samatau’s reward also afforded her the opportunity to reconnect with old ally Henry and learn crucial information about a potential cross-tribal alliance with her it-girl Anneliese and meat-shield Locky. But such an alliance would have to wait until the merge – first, she had to dethrone Luke.
Until this point, Sarah has been adept at playing under-the-radar, telling people enough of what they wanted to hear so that they didn’t look her way or perceive her as a threat. However, as she stepped up her game to take control, she needed to shift her strategic conversational approach from being agreeable to being persuasive. With Peter on board, she needed to find two more votes to ensure Luke’s elimination. She had the most success with Tara, who has had her own struggles with Luke’s erratic authority. After Sarah and Peter returned from their reward, she was able to effortlessly open the door for Tara to reveal that Luke had been planning her assassination in her absence. With this revelation, Sarah felt emboldened to make her play. After all, now that he was coming after her, “It’s not me being disloyal. It’s me protecting myself.”
However, Odette and Jericho were much harder sells – and this was where Sarah’s powers of persuasion appeared to encounter an obstacle in the road. Whether in the majority or not, Odette has consistently voted down the line with no funny business – she values strength and loyalty; that’s it. When Sarah pitched her idea of targeting Luke, Odette seemed reticent to make such a big move against original Asaga. Jericho was even more stuck in his ways – for entirely different reasons. Even as Sarah laid out the facts, her first foray into active manipulation began to struggle more as her uprising became public knowledge, which only gave more power to her enemy, the Mad King.
THE MAD KING
It’s a wonder that someone as erratic and uncontrollable as Luke has not only survived to this point in the game but has also managed to ascend to the seat of power. Luke is a sneakily aggressive player, his lackadaisical charm often masking his cunning. However, as he’s started to wear the crown of leadership – alongside the shirts he’s taken from his past victims – his cocksure confidence has raised his threat level and blinded him to his own social management.
Just as it was the right move for Sarah to try to take out a loose cannon like Luke, it was right for Luke to look to take out a clever but unreliable number like Sarah. As he observed, Sarah has played the middle and always reached out to the outsiders to curry favour and opportunity – be it Samatau cast-offs or Santa Claus himself. The trouble was that Luke’s approach to the attack severely mismanaged his allies.
He initially pitched his plan as a 3-2-1 blindside. Whilst Sarah and Jericho would be led to believe Asaga-strong would take out Peter, he, Odette and Tara would knock out Sarah. While a solid plan on paper, he failed to execute. When he hurriedly made his pitch to Tara while Sarah was scoffing spaghetti, he misread the room. Tara is strong-willed and, ironically, like Luke, she doesn’t like to take orders (remember her “stepping away” from her alliance with Adam because he told her to go look for the Idol?). Luke’s blunt and aggressive push to blindside an ally caught her off guard, leading her to grow wary of trusting him, to the point where she spilled the beans on the plan at the first opportunity she had.
Luke’s handling of Jericho, however, was the real head-scratcher. Their bromance has been strong since the beginning, and Cookie Monster and Elmo have been in lock-step through every stage of the game. Dangerously, though, Luke sought to undermine that trust by excluding Jericho from the plan to eliminate Sarah, rationalising that he wouldn’t want to go along with it. If Jericho truly was too closely allied with Sarah to bring him in, then it’s a reasonable solution for Luke – but it still risks alienating his closest ally. But the worst part of it was that Luke’s plans and actions didn’t line up. He’d told Tara and Odette that he’d let Jericho in on the scheme at the last minute, but he didn’t follow through, thus resulting in Tara unintentionally revealing the plan to an aghast Jericho, which opened the can of worms for the most chaotic Tribal yet.
As Luke and Sarah each tried to pull numbers to their side, their feud became more and more apparent – although they tried to hide their attacks from a watchful Samatau through vague references to each other as “a certain person,” Asaga knew just who was leading the charge in their civil war. All that was left was for the rest to choose their sides.
Jericho is in a peculiar position in the game – he’s in a strong pair alongside Luke which had been a firm trio with Michelle, but his “cookie alliance” with Sarah and Henry has also afforded him links to other powerful players in the game. Unfortunately for him, his peaceful Asaga family turned into a hot mess. When Tara told him that the plan was to vote out Sarah, he staunchly denied it and (understandably) argued that the only name he’d heard was Peter. When Luke then served his own “porkie pies” and continued to lie to him that that had always been the plan, Jericho confronted Sarah – leading to an intense argument that bled into Tribal as Luke denied his machinations against Sarah. Sarah reasoned the truth in her attack against Luke and Jericho stood his ground on a misdirected vote against Peter, missing the cues from Tara and Sarah that something did not add up.
With Jericho, Odette and Tara all as potential swing votes between Luke, Sarah and Peter, Tribal Council became a farce, as the players tried to figure out where the vote was truly going. Was it really going against the easy vote in Peter? Or were Sarah and Luke holding firm in their bids to target each other? As Luke largely dialled back to play dumb by pointing the gun at Peter, Sarah kept swinging to win the numbers against Luke. Jericho, confused and just hoping that Mum and Dad would stop fighting, tried to talk Sarah down from the ledge, but she whispered to him, urging him to trust her. Odette steadfastly argued for the tribe to stay true-blue and vote out Peter. Tara, fed up the misbehaving children, blew up the plan for the third time in one night, outright revealing Luke’s plans to take out Sarah. Samatau, meanwhile, watched from the Jury bench, savouring every minute of the circus with glee – really, production should have wheeled out a popcorn cart.
Tribal was madness – and who knows how it would have actually played out. Devastatingly, we will never know.
With the precedent of last season, Asaga perhaps should have been suspicious of the other tribe observing their Tribal Council. After all, when Brooke won the chance to watch Vavau’s Tribal last season, she got the chance to kidnap Sue, which inadvertently saved Kristie and doomed Phoebe. It played out a little differently in form tonight, but what’s old is new again. Just as it looked like the night’s drama was careening towards a Luke versus Sarah deathmatch, Jonathan LaPaglia instead gave the opportunity for one member of Asaga to commit mutiny.
It was hardly surprising that Peter took the opportunity. He was a dead man walking at Asaga – and despite Sarah’s valiant efforts to mount a revolution, the chaotic Tribal had made it abundantly clear that it was far from a sure thing. Meanwhile, he knew he had close allies back on Samatau – Tessa and Jarrad welcomed him back with open arms, and even his Day One tribemates like Anneliese and Locky would give him safety in numbers come the merge. Peter is a smart social player – that’s his strength – and whilst his abandonment of Sarah may have seemed cold, it was the logical choice for his own game moving forward.
The more surprising aspect of the mutiny was, perhaps, Sarah’s decision to stay in her seat. Her plan to overthrow Luke had been outed and that he was actively coming after her. She knew that she would have Anneliese (and her Idol!) if she jumped ship to Samatau, not to mention the potential alliance formed over an Italian feast. It could have been a way out for her – and it would have been simple for her to beat Peter to the punch, particularly as he wavered in his decision to go.
However, Sarah has played this whole game by trying to blend into the scenery and seem non-threatening. Despite the chaos of this episode, if she were to jump ship, it would only serve to show her hand as a threat, as well as putting her in a vulnerable position in a wholly new tribe. At least staying in Asaga could give her room to smooth over the rough couple days of her thwarted coup with people she had 30+ days of firsthand experience – perhaps, she might even be able to remount the attack. But for her, what played out was the worst case scenario, as her only reliable ally left her alone on a sinking ship.
Survivor is a brutal and selfish game, and this is one of the purest examples of it. Although the game forces you to build relationships and work together to get to the end, only one person can walk away with the million dollars. Sometimes getting rid of the competition is as easy as going head-to-head with an adversary or orchestrating the blindside of a huge threat. But the hardest and cruellest way is just letting someone else take the bullet, as Peter did to Sarah tonight.
Tonight’s episode played out as the first half of a doubleheader, as the story of the Mad King Luke and the Rebel Leader Sarah was left unfinished. With her numbers and currency of trust evaporating, will Sarah be able to save herself from certain doom? Will Luke’s terrible reign recover and flourish? And will Peter’s mutiny give him new life or just a different way to die?
If there’s one thing Australian Survivor can teach us this season, it’s to expect the unexpected.