I try not to pay too much attention to Australian Survivor’s previews or episode-to-episode hype. It’s not bad by any stretch, but due to its hyperbolic approach, I find that it tends to take some air out of the sails during the episode. Either the hype over-promises (who can forget Sue’s Big Move™ in the halcyon days of Season 1) or it still delivers, but because I’m expecting something big or flashy, it doesn’t have the same impact as it would if I was going in green.
Nevertheless, I caught a sideways glimpse of some of the promotion for tonight’s episode, building it up as the biggest and best Tribal since the insane Mat blindside last season. So my overthinking self naturally pondered what that could mean. I would have put good money on a 0-vote Contenders Tribal with Harry and Janine each playing their Idols, or a climax in the Shaun/David narrative, perhaps even David going out with Shaun’s Idol in his pocket.
So all through tonight’s episode, I was anticipating something big. The latter was starting to loom as the likely outcome as the new Champions discussed splitting the vote between David and Luke while they painfully underestimated their opponents. But then Andy stepped in and turned it into a potentially phenomenal strategic blindside. But THEN David and Luke concocted their own plan on the fly at Tribal, and somehow we ended up with the original decoy boot going home after two Idol plays and a re-vote. There was no way I could have predicted that–even with the idea of a crazy Tribal incepted, Leonardo DiCaprio-style, into my mind by a promo on Twitter.
Whatever expectations I had, they were blown out of the water by this unpredictable episode. At this stage, I feel like that’s an apt description of the season as a whole. Few of us were thrilled at the reheated Champions vs. Contenders theme, but with a largely strong cast and ample aggressive (and often entertainingly questionable) gameplay, this pre-merge has left our expectations in the dust. It’s still not perfect. Hannah’s edit was at least an improvement over Sam’s last week but remained woefully and unnecessarily underserved, and it still feels like Australian Survivor doesn’t have enough faith that its audience can follow more than two or three storylines, but it’s still smashing it out of the park.
So without wasting any more words, let’s start breaking down that insane Champions Tribal and easily the most complicated vote of the season so far.
THE NUMBERS GAME
With Shaun “The Horse” Hampson back in the stable of his alliance, he brought with him much-needed stability to the imploding ex-Contenders on Champions beach. Sam’s elimination had shattered the tribal lines, and Sarah’s had further divided these players, but Shaun’s presence, freshly kidnapped from the Contenders, was able to serve as a rallying point. In large part, this was fuelled by Shaun’s discovery that the Idol David had traded him was a fake, which obliterated the budding alliance Daisy and John had formed with David and Luke. Finally, it seemed like the Contenders might be able to gather their strength and stop the hemorrhaging induced by turning on each other and blowing their 7-2 advantage at the swap.
So the plan was simple: they could split their votes 3-3 between the two ex-Champions, prioritising David and flushing his Idol out of the game, whether he played it or not. Meanwhile, the perfect decoy emerged when Hannah was feeling unwell after the Immunity Challenge. Already an outcast having been the only player to vote with Sarah at her elimination and ostensibly “weaker” in challenges, her health became an easy nail in the coffin for the fake plan to throw David & Luke off the scent. It could be smooth and unanimous, and the two Champions appeared to buy it completely.
It was a good plan, and between Daisy’s work to gain the trust of Luke & David, and Shaun playing dumb about the fake Idol to keep David off the scent and on his own power trip, there was every reason for the ex-Champions to buy the story that the vote really was as easy as Hannah. It genuinely looked like the Contenders had them fooled heading into the final minutes before Tribal, and if they could have pulled it off, it would have been an epic blindside and a cathartic comeuppance to the David/Shaun storyline (which, to my viewer’s delight, still isn’t over after tonight’s outcome!).
But this is where it began to go off the rails. Despite the unifying power Shaun held for Daisy and John, his presence wasn’t a blessing for everyone. Two of the ex-Contenders blindsided by the Sam vote remained, and what advantage was there for Andy or Hannah to funnel more power to the alliance of the people that had betrayed them?
A LIAR AND A PLAYER
Hannah, to her credit, was simply looking for a majority after having been left in the cold at the two prior votes. The reinvigorated Contenders Strong mentality could give her a place to hide for the moment, and she needed cover. Of course, having her name thrown out as the decoy–and to an opponent wielding an Idol, at that–wasn’t exactly comforting, but rather than rebel against it, she took it in her stride. And if it weren’t for the second Idol in Luke’s pocket or the chaos spurned by Andy, it would have worked out well for her. So while her move to fall back in with the majority didn’t consolidate power for herself, it was a move that could have saved herself for this vote. With the merge not too far away, she wouldn’t have to survive too many more votes to reach the stage where the big targets would turn on each other, so I think ducking for cover was a solid play to make.
She also took on the role of the decoy boot with gusto and embraced the performative lie. All she had to do was make sure that she was convincingly worried and ensure that there was nothing suspicious about the purportedly easy unanimous vote said to be coming her way. And yet, Hannah’s inability to effectively sell this narrative at Tribal seemed to be a key catalyst for what ultimately went down and what would eventually leave her puzzling over a whiteboard as she dissected how she was the one who went home. She wasn’t the only one to give a tepid and unconvincing performance at Tribal, but nevertheless, she appeared almost too willing to claim she was in danger, ringing the alarm bells for David & Luke, already suspicious of the easy vote and additionally fuelled by Andy’s tip-off. Perhaps the better tactic for Hannah would have been to act more oblivious or even play up her sickness to be the glum sitting duck? It’s hard to know, because, again, we hardly knew the player who became the victim of the huge Tribal Council.
And it’s not like there wasn’t a story to be told! Thankfully, the editors learned a little from their botching of Sam’s elimination and at least let Hannah speak more than five words in her boot episode, but it remains frustrating that two of the biggest votes thus far were robbed of emotional weight because the viewer had no reason to be invested in the victim. At least Hannah was granted a broad narrative of failing to lie effectively and becoming a casualty of a chaotic Tribal and an Idol play in her final episode, but wouldn’t this very story of lying have been more satisfying if it had been built up by one or two more scenes earlier in the season?
Prior to tonight’s episode, all we really knew about Hannah was that she was on the wrong side of the numbers after the swap and that, according to Andy’s Episode 3 confessional stratifying the original Contenders tribe, she was a hairdresser. Only… she wasn’t a hairdresser. As revealed with zero fanfare in the chyron of her singular confessional, she is a police officer. In her pre-season interview, Hannah had stated that she intended to lie about her profession, and as evidenced by Andy’s confessional, she not only lied about that but did so successfully.
I can’t help but wish we’d gotten even one scene acknowledging her successful, but ultimately unimportant, lie about her occupation earlier in the season, and that would have made her elimination tonight, on the back of an unsuccessful but ultimately important lie, far more narratively satisfying. All it would have taken was a minute or two of airtime, and with how long we spend on challenges, long Tribals and redundant confessionals from the major characters in already long episodes, we surely could have found the time for that at least!
But while Hannah was willing to go along with the plan out of self-preservation, Andy was unwilling to play a game governed by Daisy, Shaun or John’s agenda. Instead, he concocted a pretty stellar strategic plan. With the vote intended to be split 3 David / 3 Luke / 2 Hannah, he could turn everything on its head and so approached David & Luke to reveal that they were being duped. He proposed a counter-plan: if David played his Idol, cancelling the three votes against him, and he switched his vote from Luke, then the three of them could pile their votes on Daisy to send her home: 0 David / 3 Daisy / 2 Luke.
It’s the kind of Survivor math a superfan dreams about. It’s elegant and perfect on the page–a simple numerical opportunity and one that significantly advanced Andy’s position in the game from his perspective. It would break up the Daisy/Shaun power couple, fracture their powerful alliance with John and Baden and exact revenge for the Sam blindside, but it would also curry favour with Luke and David by saving them from going home while still flushing David’s Idol out of play.
If it had worked, it would have been a fantastic play, but the one thing that Andy failed to account for was his tribe’s perception of him. It’s become clear since the swap that none of his tribe trust him. If Baden’s comment was anything to go by, “Andy” is practically a new adjective for describing someone who can’t keep a secret. It’s hard to make this kind of meticulous play when there is so little trust, particularly when Andy only dropped the plan on David & Luke five minutes before Tribal. They had every right to doubt whether they could trust Andy based on his reputation. Could they really rely on this crazy scheme, or was he trying to addle them before Tribal and throw them off the scent of something else? And if they chose wrong, they could waste an Idol or end up on the wrong side of the vote and destroy other relationships that they’d worked so hard to cultivate after the swap.
It’s also worth noting that Andy also miscalculated his relationship with David. Whereas Andy had grown to view David as his closest ally, it was a one-sided relationship. On multiple occasions over the last few episodes, David practically laughed at the lack of reciprocity in the partnership and explicitly viewed Andy as a tool in the toolkit, but nothing more. From Andy’s perspective, David would have no reason to doubt this last-minute plan. But the same was not true for David, and certainly not Luke, who did not seem to have any strong social relationship with Andy, much less in-game trust.
As it turned out, if David and Luke had gone with Andy’s plan, the first vote would have been 0 David (thanks to the Idol), 3 Daisy, and 2 Hannah. It would have worked (nearly) flawlessly: Daisy would have been blindsided, Luke would still have his Idol, and Hannah could potentially be picked up as a fourth number to form another new majority in the tribe. But because Andy had not earned enough trust with David & Luke to pull off such a delicate move, they struck out on their own, and both parties suffered for it. It’s a harsh reminder that strategy on paper is nothing without social connections and earned trust, and it’s a lesson that all superfans should take to heart should they ever step foot on a Survivor beach.
And so it comes to Tribal, and there were three potential plans in place: the original 7-1 decoy Hannah boot, the Contenders’ plan of a 3-3-2 David/Luke split and Andy’s suggestion of a 0-3-2 Daisy blindside. Armed with Andy’s information, David & Luke were stuck in a precarious position, and as questioning at Tribal began, they read doubt into every answer that Hannah or the other Contenders gave. David leaned over to whisper to Luke that he didn’t believe from their performance that Hannah was helpless and in danger, suggesting that they should go with Andy’s plan. But Luke remained cautious, uncertain that he could trust Andy enough to make the risky play.
So David concocted a new alternative. If the Contenders were splitting their votes, then both of them could play their Idols and decide the outcome. Whether it was a 3-3 split, or whether Andy honestly voted Daisy to make the Contender votes 3-2-1, the Idols would negate it to 0-0 or 0-0-1, respectively, leaving the 2 votes of Luke and David in total control, and allowing them to go big game hunting and blindside Shaun. Again, this is beautiful Survivor math, and it’s even more impressive that David and Luke not only concocted the plan on the fly but agreed to it and followed through.
There is absolutely no reason why these two should have survived this many Tribal Councils, but they continue to prove themselves as resourceful, social, clever, and opportunistic in just the right dose. Of course, with David’s propensity to over-play and with their Idol buffer now spent, they could be in danger come tomorrow night, but I wouldn’t put it past them to stoke the flames of the chaotic Tribal and scapegoat Andy for his stray vote against Daisy and continue to fuel the Contenders against each other. So while I’m not optimistic about this dynamic duo’s chances, there’s no doubt that they continue to be a primary reason why this pre-merge has been so exceptional.
Nevertheless, as is becoming a redundant statement, this makeshift plan would have been a mind-blowing move for the ages if it had worked. It’s ingenious and instinctual and eliminating a significant threat, and the heart of the alliance in control of the tribe, would have reshuffled the deck. It does alienate Andy by ignoring his advice, but it still targeted the alliance of his preferred target, so I can’t imagine there’d be much to smooth over if they needed the number. Of all the various plans at play at tonight’s Tribal, I think David & Luke’s may have been the best, but perhaps that’s just because they had the most information at their disposal with which to work.
But, of course, there was one last factor at play…
And thus we come back around to the alliance at the centre of it all: Shaun, Daisy, John, and Baden. These were the folks championing the 3 David, 3 Luke, 2 Hannah split to flush David’s Idol and ensure a Champion went home. Yet somehow, the vote at Tribal became 0 David (3 votes cancelled by his Idol, 1 of which came from Hannah), 2 Shaun (from David & Luke), 1 Daisy (from Andy), and 2 Hannah. So why did Luke not receive any votes, and where did those Hannah votes come from? They had to come from this alliance–and it was a lucky break for them, allowing a re-vote and an elimination of Hannah to narrowly save Shaun from being Idolled out. But when and why did this plan come into effect?
Unfortunately, this is where the surprise of the TV moment must sacrifice the storytelling. Somewhere along the way, a back-up plan emerged for two of this core four to still throw votes onto Hannah. It doesn’t really matter who wrote down her name, but it comes down to two options of when: was this always the contingency plan, or was it an off-the-cuff call at Tribal once David & Luke were whispering or particularly once David adorned himself with his Idol and openly threatened to play it?
With the chaos of Tribal, it feels natural that the second option should be accurate–Luke & David called an audible on their plan, so why couldn’t the Contenders? It’s entirely possible that they got spooked into throwing back-up votes onto Hannah, but honestly? That seems like a weird choice to make in the moment. Historical precedent, like the Three Amigos Tribal in Caramoan teaches that you should stick to your guns and call the Idol bluff. Could it be an attempt to save face with Luke & David by “demonstrating” that they’d stuck to the original plan that was openly in doubt at Tribal? Seems ineffective when half of their alliance were still going to flush David’s Idol. So it would be a frantic half-measure, at best.
But if this was what went down, then it was a terrible move that only worked out because Luke happened to waste his Idol–an Idol the Contenders didn’t know about. Survivor rarely, if ever, has more than one Idol per camp in the pre-merge, and with the conceit of the Idol trade, there was little reason to suspect that David & Luke could have a second Idol. What benefit is there in splitting the vote between David and Hannah instead of ensuring that a Champion would go home, Idol or no Idol? The Contenders were exceptionally close to flushing out David’s Idol while not taking a sure shot at his partner-in-crime and instead assassinating one of their own and had Luke’s Idol not made this whole situation redundant, this decision would have gone down as a self-destructive rookie error.
And I still feel like it’s not the ideal plan, even if it was organised in advance. Perhaps the core four were worried about Andy’s tendency to leak information and wanted to have a secret plan in their back pocket, but I’m just befuddled by the numbers. If only two of them were throwing votes onto Hannah, then the only scenario that this is beneficial is in the unlikely (if resultant) case, where David & Luke both have Idols and could then have the power to unilaterally decide who went home. Any other scenario results in voting out Hannah when they could have taken the shot at Luke.
Yet I may be being too hars–if the core four planned to have this contingency in place so that the vote could play out exactly as it went down, then I have to doff my cap to a comprehensive plan well-made and executed in the face of chaos.
With Hannah sent home on the re-vote, the new Champions tribe is left in even more of a mess than before. David and Luke are well and truly on the outside, having not only survived a hit and flashily expended their Idols, but they also targeted the Contenders’ patron saint in The Horse himself. That will surely draw ire from the core alliance, but I can’t imagine Daisy will sit easy on the one vote thrown her way from one of her own. Maybe Andy can spin it as Hannah’s stray vote (after all, she wanted to target Daisy at the Sarah vote), but with no reason for Luke & David to hold onto his secret, I expect he’ll be outed. So the core four hold a solid majority, but should the new Champions return to Tribal, I still wouldn’t say for sure that they’ll hold tight when surrounded by such chaos.
And to conclude, we have to also address the brewing tensions on the new Contenders as the dichotomy between the original tribes grew, with Harry and Janine emerging as the unambiguous figureheads of the respective war. With each armed with an Idol and a keen mind for the game, I expect the showdown between Dirty Harry and The Godmother to be something to behold.
This season has been on fire from the start, and it just keeps burning brighter. I hope it can keep it up, and I hope we continue to see larger roles for the minor characters like Simon, who had his first breakout episode hyping up his tribe before the challenge and then crushing the closer leg throwing the balls from atop the Tower of Terror into the chute held open by Ross underwater (which is a really fantastic and, I believe, original challenge design!). So with the strategy getting more and more exciting, and the social politics get increasingly complex, I’m feeling very optimistic the deeper down we go. Cue the Hans Zimmer score–this feels like it’s going to be epic.